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Children’s commissioner tells ministers and unions to ‘stop squabbling’ over re-opening schools

The education secretary has said that the government’s plans to re-open schools on 1 June 2020 in a phased manner is based on science.

Gavin Williamson stood firm on schools in England reopening on June 1 and tried to reassurance parents saying that the government’s plans are based on the “best scientific advice with children at the very heart of everything we do”.

The government and teaching unions have been locking horns over whether it is feasible to re-open primary schools safely to reception children, Year 1 and Year 6.

But the children’s commissioner for England has waded into the debate, urging the government and teaching unions to ‘stop squabbling’ and to work constructively together to get children back in to the classroom as quickly as possible.

Anne Longfield said that while the present scientific evidence cannot offer any guarantees around whether children are at risk from Covid-19, and whether reopening schools is completely safe, decisions about returning children to school cannot wait until a vaccine is available. She called for a constructive approach from government and teaching unions to find a way forward based on testing, learning and controlling risk.

As WillisPalmer has previously warned, while the evidence on the dangers to children of Covid-19 is not definitive, there is overwhelming evidence that prolonged periods out of school is extremely damaging for all children, particularly children from vulnerable and disadvantaged families.

There are 2.3 million children in England with a vulnerable family background, which includes around 2 million children living in a household where there is domestic abuse, parental substance misuse or parental mental health issues. In some local areas more than 1 in 5 children live with a family affected by one of these issues and these may have become more prevalent since lockdown started, Anne Longfield warned.

There are also real dangers of a ‘disadvantage gap’ – the disparity in learning and education outcomes between disadvantaged children and their peers from more affluent backgrounds. There is also the impact of lockdown on the mental health and wellbeing of children.

While maintaining social distancing among very young children is “not feasible or practical,” risks have been managed in other countries by:

- Staggering drop-off and pick-up times

- Regular handwashing and hand sanitising and not allowing children to bring in toys from home

- Keeping children in small groups of 4-6 with one teacher per group, and not interacting with children in other groups.

- Doing sessions outside where possible

- Not allowing parents to enter the building and social distancing of parents at school gates

Anne Longfield said: “The decision to bring back children from Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 first is sensible, as these are the year groups who need to be in school most urgently. 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. It is now up to the government and the teaching unions to work together, along with the many teachers who are not in unions, to find solutions in the best interests of children and make this work – while doing all they can keep children and staff safe.

“We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school. It’s time to stop squabbling and agree a staggered, safe return that is accompanied by rigorous testing of teachers, children and families,” she concluded.

However, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT said that throughout the lockdown, NAHT has had frequent meetings with the Department for Education and any descriptions of a deep rift “do not reflect what I have observed”.

“Everyone is working extremely hard to find solutions in extremely difficult and uncertain circumstances,” he added.

A meeting with the government’s scientific advisers was productive, said Whiteman, as they did hear some assurances about safety, although the analysis behind those assurances was nor provided and it is important for that scientific evidence and advice to be put in the public domain.

“Our focus in recent days has been to help our members with their planning for a return to school and to get the answers they need in order to achieve that successfully and safely.

“The conditions are not yet right to re-open schools to more pupils. The government says its evidence indicates that circumstances should be improved enough to safely admit more pupils from 1 June. However, if their tests have not been met, then the government must follow through on its statement that wider school reopening will be paused.

"Most critically, clear evidence on the level of risk that pupils, parents and school staff may pose to one another in a school environment and how these risks can best be mitigated. The ball is currently in the government’s court here, so we hope they’ll publish this with no delay."

“In the meantime, we have issued guidance to our members to help them to plan to re-admit more pupils to school should the government confirm it is safe to do so. We believe that this should be done in a more phased way than the government suggests, gradually increasing capacity. The risks of going too far, too fast are obvious.

“We have consistently said that the government cannot expect schools to ‘flick a switch’ and return to normal. Our actions should follow the science, rather than waiting for the science to catch-up with the government’s preferred date,” Mr Whiteman said.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, added: “The NEU understands the importance of education to all children and particularly the most vulnerable. That is why teachers, leaders and support staff have been working throughout the pandemic caring for vulnerable children in schools and supporting children learning at home.

“We all want schools to open – as soon as it is safe to do so. The NEU’s five tests do not require a vaccine, which will be many months away. Today the government responded to our tests. We will look at the evidence supporting their response and make an informed judgement as to what extent they have been met.

“We think it is very important that anecdote does not replace evidence in this pandemic. Today the British Medical Association supported our five tests. The BMA’s Public Health Medicine Committee said that ‘until we have got the case numbers much lower, we should not consider re-opening schools,’” she added.
Indeed, on Twitter, the BMA posted: “We’ve written to @NEUnion to offer our support to teachers and education professionals who are urging caution over plans to reopen schools before there is clear evidence to support the safety of such a move.”

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT-The Teachers’ union, said that NASUWT welcomes Gavin Williamson’s commitment to discuss a way forward which will help to ensure that schools can reopen safely to more children.

He added that it is “urgently important” that the government takes every available opportunity to provide the necessary assurances that teachers are seeking.

“It should not be forgotten that teachers have continued to look after vulnerable children and children of critical workers whilst also providing high quality support for remote learning for those children who are at home.

“Schools are looking to the government for clear and unequivocal guidance on the health and safety measures they will need to have in place prior to reopening.

“The bottom line is that no teacher or child should be expected to go into schools until it can be demonstrated that it is safe for them to do so,” he concluded.

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