‘Stop squabbling’ demand over opening schools | Sunday Observer

‘Stop squabbling’ demand over opening schools

17 May, 2020

LONDON, May 16. (BBC) - The government and teachers’ unions should “stop squabbling and agree a plan” to reopen schools safely, the Children’s Commissioner for England has said.

Anne Longfield said many disadvantaged children were losing out from schools being closed for so long.

Teachers’ leaders met the government’s scientific advisers on Friday, but did not agree to go back to work.

Ms Longfield said schools needed to open “as quickly as possible”.

The government has set out plans to begin a phased reopening of primary schools in England from 1 June.

But the plans have been challenged by teaching unions, who have been arguing with the Department for Education over whether it is safe to return to school.

Some local authorities have also said they will not reopen schools from 1 June.

Liverpool’s schools will not reopen until mid-June “at the very least”, the city’s council said.

Steve Reddy, director of children and young people’s services in Liverpool, said: “Our guiding principle is that schools can only re-open to other pupils when it is safe to do so and not a moment before.”

Hartlepool Borough Council has also challenged the government’s timetable, saying schools will not reopen at the start of next month “given that coronavirus cases locally continue to rise”.

The British Medical Association has backed teachers’ unions by saying Covid-19 infection rates are too high for England’s schools to reopen.

England is the only UK nation to set a date for schools to start to return,

It has said opening schools should not be considered “until we have got case numbers much lower”.

But the children’s commissioner has now issued her own call for the dispute to be settled, and for stronger safety measures to be introduced, such as regular testing for pupils and teachers. “I am disappointed that the debate about when some primary school kids can return has descended into a squabble between government and the teaching unions,” said Ms Longfield.

“All sides need to show a greater will to work together in the interests of children.”

Schools have been closed by the coronavirus since 20 March, with lessons from schools moving online.

But Ms Longfield said that the most deprived and vulnerable children were the most likely to be falling behind and there was a growing “disadvantage gap”. “We know that the longer schools are closed the greater the impact will be on social mobility and that many children are really struggling without seeing their friends and the structure that school brings.

“We need to face the reality that for a number of reasons there are hundreds of thousands of children who can’t access meaningful education at home.”

She backed plans to bring back children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. “But we should have an aspiration that all children return to school in some form before the summer and that school buildings are used for activities, summer schools and family support over the holidays.”

Responding to the commissioner’s call, Mary Bousted - co-leader of the UK’s biggest teaching union, the National Education Union, said: “We all want schools to open, as soon as it is safe to do so.”

She said the teachers’ union would “look at the evidence” and “make an informed judgement” about the timing of reopening schools.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Getting children back to school and nurseries is in their best interests and all those working in education have a duty to work together to do so.

“We welcome the children commissioner’s support for a phased return of children to primary school with many of the measures she raises, like staggering drop-off and pick-up times, keeping children in smaller groups and regular hand washing, already in train.”

Schools in Wales will not be going back on 1 June and it is not expected that schools in Scotland or Northern Ireland will go back before the summer break.

A further 384 coronavirus deaths were recorded in the UK on Friday, as it was revealed there were 8,312 deaths linked to coronavirus in care homes in England and Wales up to 1 May, according to the Office for National Statistics. Over 134,000 coronavirus tests were recorded, with nearly 70,000 people tested up to last morning - 3,560 of whom tested positive.