Church of England wades into school row and calls on pupils to return
Church of England wades into school row and calls for pupils to return to the classroom as charities warn children’s mental health could be affected
- Mental health charities also raised concerns about time spent away from school
- Ministers have drawn up proposals for a ‘phased’ return starting on June 1
- Pupils will be placed in smaller classes with staggered start times and breaks
The Church of England last night warned children will suffer if they are not able to return to the classroom, as pressure mounted on teachers’ unions to end their boycott of back-to-school plans.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove yesterday escalated the row by telling union leaders: ‘If you really care about children, you will want them to be in school.’
Mental health charities have also raised concerns that time spent away from friends will be damaging to childrens’ mental health.
Ministers have drawn up proposals for a ‘phased’ return that could see children in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 start to go back to schools in England as early as June 1.
Pupils will be placed in smaller classes with staggered start times and lunch breaks to limit the spread of the virus.
Some teaching unions are blocking the move and have said they will only budge once they are persuaded it is totally safe for teachers and children to go back to the classroom. But others have said they will recommend reopening after talks with Government experts.
Meanwhile, a number of local authorities have said they will not comply with Boris Johnson’s lockdown strategy and will exercise caution when it comes to reopening schools.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove yesterday escalated the row by telling union leaders: ‘If you really care about children, you will want them to be in school’
The ongoing row over the reopening of schools came as:
- Business Secretary Alok Sharma told the daily Downing Street press conference that there had been 170 more coronavirus deaths in the UK today, taking the overall toll to 34,636.
- Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation, said world data on the return of schools is ‘very reassuring’.
- Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said she supported councils which are not planning to reopen schools to all pupils on June 1 for safety reasons.
- Mr Gove has said there are ‘big lessons’ to be learned from the treatment of care homes during the coronavirus outbreak.
- The Minister for the Cabinet Office revealed 17,000 contact tracers have now been recruited, putting the Government on track to hit its 18,000 target.
- Mr Johnson told Tory MPs he wants to return to ‘near-normality’ in July.
- The PM announced £93m to bring forward the opening of a research centre to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine.
- Mr Johnson and Sir Mark Sedwill, the UK’s top civil servant, were said to have had a ‘tense’ stand off over who is responsible for implementing the lockdown exit strategy.
- Britons flocked to parks and beaches as temperatures moved towards 70F in the nation’s first Sunday since lockdown measures were loosened.
The Church of England, which runs a quarter of primary schools, yesterday warned about the impact on the wellbeing of children if they are not able to go back.
Reverend Nigel Genders, the Church’s chief education officer, said: ‘Remaining at home for a prolonged period will affect the mental, spiritual, physical and social wellbeing of children. We are particularly concerned about the impact on children from the most disadvantaged families and the potential this has for a widening in the attainment gap.’
Paul Farmer, of mental health charity Mind, told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: ‘Young people are missing their friends, they’re missing the peer contact that they have. I think that the quicker we can get [them] back into their normal cycle of activity, the better that will be for their mental health.’
Amid growing tensions between ministers and union leaders, Mr Gove yesterday insisted it was ‘absolutely safe’ for teachers and children to return to schools.
Schools across the UK have now been shut to the vast majority of pupils for more than six weeks
Boris Johnson, pictured in Downing Street on Mat 15, is facing a growing backlash over his plans for the phased reopening of primary schools from June 1
The latest Downing Street statistics showed there had been a further 170 coronavirus deaths in the UK today, taking the total to 34,636
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is one of eight former education secretaries who has now backed the re-opening of classrooms, including Labour’s Lord Blunkett, Alan Johnson and Charles Clarke. Mr Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘Over the course of the last decade we’ve made significant strides in closing the gap between the richest and the poorest in our schools.
‘This lockdown has put that backwards.’ In a pointed message to the teaching unions, he added: ‘If you really care about children you will want them to be in school, you will want them to be learning, you’ll want them to have new opportunities, so you know look to your responsibilities.’
It comes as a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the pandemic risks widening the educational gap between rich and poor children. It found that pupils from better-off households are spending an extra 75 minutes a day on educational activities.
And a chief scientist with the World Health Organisation said countries that kept schools open had not seen a major virus outbreak as a result. Dr Soumya Swaminathan, a specialist in child respiratory diseases, told Mr Marr: ‘I do believe society has to restart. What we have seen in countries where schools have remained open is that there have not been big outbreaks in schools.
Boris Johnson tells Tory MPs he wants return to ‘near normality’ in July
Boris Johnson has told Tory MPs he wants to return to ‘near-normality’ in July as he hails British ‘good sense’ over the lockdown and announces £93million to bring forward the opening of a research centre to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine.
Speaking to 100 of his colleagues via video link, the Prime Minister said he would take ‘grandmother steps’ to ease the rules, but only if Britons comply with the current lockdown measures. He also confirmed that Commons discussions will resume on June 2.
It comes as Mr Johnson declares British people’s ‘fortitude’ will enable them to survive the Covid-19 crisis and regain ‘the freedoms they hold dear’.
He says that the epidemic has brought out ‘the best in humanity’ and that the public’s ‘perseverance’ and ‘good common sense’ will enable the country to ‘inch forwards’ out of lockdown and towards ‘much-missed normality’.
Writing in today’s Mail on Sunday, Mr Johnson also announces that an Oxfordshire research centre will be opening a year ahead of schedule in an attempt to fast-track a vaccine against the coronavirus.
An MP listening in on the video call told The Sun: ‘Boris told us he is determined that the country should be as close to normality again before the end of July.
‘But he was clear that it all depends on the country meeting the conditions that have been set for tackling the virus.
‘Most importantly that means bringing down the infection rate – and that can only be achieved if we continue to obey the rules on social distancing to help stop it spreading.’
Mr Johnson’s exclusive article will be seen as an attempt to draw a line under the chaotic days in Westminster which followed his televised address to the nation last Sunday, which left many people confused about the rules about meeting friends and family.
The Prime Minister clarifies today: ‘You can now spend as much time as you like outdoors, for example sitting and enjoying the fresh air, picnicking, or sunbathing. You can meet one other person from a different household outdoors, provided you maintain social distancing.’
‘And where there have been it’s been associated with events where a lot of people gather, not in regular classrooms, and it’s often been associated with an adult who has had the infection and has spread it… It does seem from what we know now that children are less capable of spreading it, even if they get the infection, and certainly are at very low risk of getting ill from the disease.’
Michael Gove today guaranteed teachers and pupils will be safe when schools are reopened before swiftly backtracking as he said ‘you can never eliminate risk’.
Mr Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, today tried to assuage concerns as he insisted it will be safe for teachers and students before then performing a screeching U-turn and admitting there will be at least some level of risk.
It came as the Government saw its approval rating take a sharp dip in the week after the Prime Minister set out his strategy for lifting lockdown measures.
A new Opinium survey showed that disapproval for the PM’s response to the outbreak is now higher than approval for the very first time.
Some 39 per cent of the nation are supportive of the Government’s handling of the crisis, down nine points on the 48 per cent recorded last week, while disapproval rose from 36 per cent to 42 per cent.
The Government’s schools plan will see reception, year one and year six pupils return in June with other year groups returning later.
Secondary schools are not due to reopen before the summer holidays but pupils in year 10 and year 12 will be offered time with teachers ahead of them entering their exam year.
Mr Gove was asked this morning during an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show if teachers should be safe when returning to work.
He replied: ‘Yes, teachers will be safe in schools. The programme that has been outlined is a staged and careful return with children in reception, year one and year six of primary coming back to school we hope in the week beginning June 1.
‘It is the case that some of the best leaders in current education have said that it is absolutely safe for children to return, absolutely safe for teachers and other staff to return as well.’
Asked if he could guarantee that teachers will be safe, he said: ‘Yes. It is the case, as I say, I talked to the chief scientific adviser yesterday for the government Patrick Vallance and running through the figures, the R number, the rate of infection in the community overall, we are confident that children and teachers will be safe.’
However, when asked directly if he could guarantee that no returning teacher will catch coronavirus at school, Mr Gove said: ‘The only way ever to ensure that you never catch coronavirus is to stay at home completely.
‘There is always, always, always in any loosening of these restrictions a risk of people catching the coronavirus.’
He continued: ‘The key thing is that we can make these workplaces safe. You can never eliminate risk but as we know, as we have heard, it is the case that it is extremely unlikely that any school is likely to be the source of a Covid outbreak and if for any reason there are risks then we can take steps to mitigate them.’
Hartlepool Council has now joined Liverpool in saying its schools will remain shut on June 1 as local coronavirus cases continue to rise.
Countries including Denmark (pictured) have already begun reopening schools with social distancing measures in place
Hartlepool said in a statement: ‘Given that coronavirus cases locally continue to rise, Hartlepool Borough Council has been working with schools and we have agreed they will not reopen on Monday 1st June.
‘Whilst we recognise the importance of schools reopening, we want to be absolutely clear that we will be taking a measured and cautious approach to this.’
Michael Gove reveals more than 17,000 contact tracers have now been recruited
Michael Gove today revealed the Government has recruited more than 17,000 coronavirus contact tracers putting ministers on track to hit their 18,000 target.
The staff will play a key role in efforts to prevent a second wave of the deadly disease as they are tasked with figuring out where people who test positive have been and who they may have come into contact with.
Mr Gove’s announcement came just days after his fellow Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis said the Government had only managed to recruit people for 1,500 of the roles.
However, there are concerns about the long term future of the ‘test, track and trace’ programme after it was claimed staff are only being hired on initial three month contracts.
Health experts believe such a scheme will need to be in place for as long as 18 months.
Liverpool has confirmed that its schools will only be open to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers on June 1.
Asked for his message to councils blocking the return of schools, Mr Gove said children ‘only have one chance at education’.
‘Over the course of the last decade we have made significant strides in closing the gap between the richest and the poorest in our schools,’ he said.
‘This lockdown has put that backwards. If you really care about children you will want them to be in school, you will want them to be learning, you will want them to have new opportunities so look to your responsibilities.’
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said she supported councils in trying to ensure their residents are safe when asked about local authorities which are refusing to reopen schools on the Government’s timetable.
She told the BBC: ‘If you look at what Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester Mayor, said in the Guardian last night, the communication from the Government – in terms of the safety measures for areas like Greater Manchester, Liverpool, like the north east – has been patchy so the information hasn’t been there.
‘We believe the R rate is higher in those areas, in those regions, so therefore we want the Government to publish the science behind it and provide the support.’
Pressed on Labour’s support for councils not wanting to reopen schools to all pupils, Ms Rayner said: ‘I urge the Government to publish the science and to ensure testing and tracing is in place to safeguard.
‘Councils want to make sure their citizens are safe. I support them in trying to do that.’
Many teaching unions have resisted the reopening plans but some have said they will urge their members to go back to work on June 1.
Boris Johnson and Sir Mark Sedwill clash over lockdown exit plan
Boris Johnson and the UK’s top civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill clashed over who is responsible for rolling out the Government’s lockdown exit strategy, it was claimed today.
The Prime Minister and Sir Mark are said to have had a ‘tense’ standoff when the plans to ease restrictions were being discussed at a meeting last week.
Mr Johnson apparently asked the room who was responsible for actually implementing the measures contained within the blueprint.
He asked Sir Mark if it was him, but the head of the Civil Service replied it was up to the PM to make sure things happen.
The claims came amid reports of growing splits between ministers and senior civil servants.
Mandarins fear they are being lined as coronavirus ‘fall guys’ ahead of an inevitable public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the crisis.
Meanwhile, a plan to quarantine travellers returning to the UK has prompted a Cabinet split over who it should apply to with aides concerned it is rapidly becoming a ‘sh**show’.
The Association of School and College Leaders said it would advise in favour of reopening after talks with government experts on Friday.
The National Association of Head Teachers suggested it would do the same as long as it is given the full expert advice held by the government.
But the British Medical Association has said it is against reopening schools on June 1 on the grounds that ‘we cannot risk a second spike’ of infections.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has appealed to every teaching union to work with the Government to find ‘practical solutions’ to enable schools in England to re-open.
He told the daily Downing Street press conference yesterday that his ‘door is always open’ as he lavished praise on teachers and pledged that school children and their families would be tested for coronavirus if they get symptoms.
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, welcomed Mr Williamson’s commitment to talk, saying it was essential ministers provided the reassurance teachers were seeking.
Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, welcomed a commitment by Mr Williamson to monitor the effects of this week’s loosening of the lockdown before going ahead with other measures.
‘This is sensible. We will take up Mr Williamson’s statement that his door is open in order to seek to engage in discussions about a safe way forward,’ he said.
Mr Johnson said he hoped schools could start re-opening from June 1 when he set out his plans last Sunday for easing the lockdown in England.
A new survey conducted by Opinium found more people now disapprove of the Government’s handling of the crisis than approve for the first time since the outbreak started
However the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have refused to follow suit.
The UK Government’s school reopening plans will see a ‘hierarchy of controls’ put in place to ensure proper hand-washing, hygiene and cleaning systems within schools while class sizes will be reduced to a maximum of 15.
Expert: World data on reopening schools is ‘very reassuring’
Data from countries which have reopened schools has been ‘very reassuring’ but governments need to consider what checks are needed to avoid a spread of Covid-19, a senior global health official has said.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO), said decisions on whether to allow schools to open are often being done at a community or city level, based on factors such as whether the virus is under control.
She also told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show she believes that ‘society has to restart’ but that there will be a new normal.
Asked about the reopening of schools, and evidence from countries that have done so, Dr Swaminathan said: ‘Overall, the data has been very reassuring, though of course it’s only a few countries that have done that.
‘The guidance that has been put out by WHO clearly lays out the criteria you would use when you consider whether to reopen a school or not.’
Dr Swaminathan said this is based on factors such as the progress of the disease – whether it is on the rise or under control and going down, as well as whether there has been time to put measures into place such as rearranging classrooms and ensuring there are handwashing facilities.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has voiced her ‘despair’ at the continued ‘squabbling’ between ministers and unions which she said is impacting on children’s life chances.
‘My worry within all that is that the needs of children and the best interests of children are disappearing from view,’ she told the BBC.
It came as Mr Johnson was warned he risks fracturing national unity if he fails to listen to regional concerns about the easing of lockdown.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said the Prime Minister did not inform civic leaders of his easing of restrictions in advance and said the dropping of the Government’s ‘stay at home’ message felt ‘premature’.
While cases of coronavirus have been easing in the South East, Mr Burnham believes the loosening of restrictions came too quickly for the North.
‘On the eve of a new working week, the PM was on TV ‘actively encouraging’ a return to work,’ Mr Burnham wrote in the Observer.
‘Even though that would clearly put more cars on roads and people on trams, no-one in Government thought it important to tell the cities that would have to cope with that.’
The manner in which the lockdown easing was announced appears to have hit the Government’s approval ratings amid claims the PM’s three phase plan was ‘confusing’.
There is also disquiet over the decision to replace the ‘stay at home’ slogan with the ‘stay alert’ message with more than half people believing the latter is not clear.
Adam Drummond, the head of political polling at Opinium, said: ‘In part this was likely inevitable as the relatively simple and almost unanimous decision to lockdown has given way to much more contestable decisions about how and when to open up.
‘We have gone from a very simple and clearly understood message to a more nuanced situation with more confused messaging and a sense that the Government don’t have as firm a grip on the situation as voters would like.’
As well as pressure over his lockdown exit plan, Mr Johnson is also facing growing pressure from his rival, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
More than a third of people (35 per cent) said they approved of Sir Keir’s response to the crisis as opposed to 20 per cent who disapproved.
Opinium conducted the survey of 2,005 UK adults online between May 13 and 14.
Damage that may last for a generation
Commentary by Professor Alan Smithers
Over the weekend, amid all the sniping and political score settling between the teachers’ unions and the Government over how and when to open schools, a shamefully neglected issue burst into the open.
It was nothing less than the future of this country’s children – something which I regret to say is now hanging by a thread.
The reality is this: if our schools are not swiftly reopened, the inequality gap that scars the British education system will become a chasm. The damage inflicted will be, quite literally, beyond repair for a generation of children.
We already know from a range of studies that the children of affluent parents do much better without formal education than those born into disadvantage or poverty.
Michael Gove admits ‘big lessons’ must be learned from care home crisis
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has said there are ‘big lessons’ to be learned from the treatment of care homes during the coronavirus outbreak.
Mr Gove said the Government had taken ‘significant steps’ to improve the situation of those in care homes.
However, amid growing criticism that they had failed to provide adequate support to the sector, he acknowledged the situation remained a ‘challenge’.
‘There are big lessons to be learned,’ he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
‘We are still living through this pandemic and there will be lessons to be learned. We have taken significant steps to improve the care of people in care homes.
‘There will be a point in the future when all of us can look back and reflect and make sure we have learned the appropriate lessons.’
Today’s shocking study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which finds that children from wealthy families will have done the equivalent of a week and half’s more learning hours than poorer children by June 1, is only the most recent in a string of deeply concerning reports.
One survey of primary and secondary heads and governors over the weekend even warned that 700,000 state school pupils are not being given any lockdown lessons.
I shudder to think how far behind these children will be if, as it now seems likely, they don’t return to lessons until September.
After all, aptitude tests of children on their return from the long summer holiday have repeatedly shown how poorer children from less regulated, less educated households often need special coaching to get them back to pre-holiday levels.
It is a truly desperate situation, one made all the more humiliating by the fact that we are now lagging behind Western Europe in seeking to reopen our schools.
Danish primary schools have already been open for a month, and its infection rate continues to fall.
In Germany, Holland, and France, children began to return last week.
And yet for some bizarre reason, Britain is not contemplating even a partial reopening until the beginning of June – and even then only for a few year groups at primary level.
Of course, I accept that there are major challenges to getting children back in the classroom. It is right that the Government proves it is properly committed to reducing any risk faced by children and teachers, and it is reasonable for the teaching unions to be involved in that process.
But that is no excuse for the National Education Union to withdraw all cooperation in this process and set a spurious list of unreasonable and vague demands – such as for schools to open only when there is ‘confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly’. Such imprecise ultimatums suggest to me a highly political attempt by a traditionally militant, Left-wing union to create obstacles to thwart the ambitions of a Conservative government.
Indeed, I suspect that many who claim to be fearful of a return to schools are wilfully missing the point.
First, there is no settled scientific consensus on when it would be absolutely safe to return, and you cannot hide from the virus indefinitely. Second, the tracking of the pandemic thus far has shown that children are the least likely to catch or transmit Covid-19.
But even if there is a risk, that still does not justify the debilitating repercussions of keeping children cooped up at home.
For the dreadful consequences of six months away from school are not just educational, but also medical and psychological. One hates to think how many children are currently confined to homes where abuse and domestic violence are widespread, and without any chance to speak to adults outside the home.
It is also alarming to see wide discrepancies in the way different schools have adapted to online teaching methods.
Most private schools, and the better performing state schools, seem broadly to be doing well. But schools in deprived areas are struggling desperately.
I make no apologies for expressing myself in strong terms when it comes to educational equality. I want everyone to have the opportunities I did. I grew up in the East End of London, the son of a Billingsgate market porter and a factory worker, both of whom had left school at 14.
I was lucky to have good, caring teachers and parents committed to getting the best out of me. Thanks to the excellent start they gave me, I have been able to fulfil my ambitions. And, that, ultimately, is the key purpose of a well-run school: it is a great social leveller, a fair environment where every pupil has the chance to develop their talents to the full.
That is why we must let our children back into the classroom to learn, play and thrive. For their sakes, and for the future of our country.
Professor Smithers is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.
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