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‘Shocked’ heads: Too early to go back to school

Parents’ safety fears as education union brands government’s June return plan ‘wildly optimistic to the point of being irresponsible’

15 May, 2020 — By Calum Fraser

Ambler Primary School head Juliet Benis, and Tony Buttifint, the National Education Union’s Islington secretary

HEADTEACHERS, parents and unions have expressed their “shock” at the government’s decision to get pupils back to school by the beginning of June.

The government announced this week that Year 1, Reception and Year 6 pupils would be expected to return to school on June 1 sparking fury from the National Education Union (NEU) and the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), who said the plan was “wildly optimistic, to the point of being irresponsible”.

Teachers and parents have told the Tribune of their concern that there is no clear scientific evidence that shows that children are safe from coronavirus, with one mother saying she will refuse to let her child go back and allow her to be used as a “guinea pig”.

Advice published by the Department for Education (DfE) says that there is “moderately high scientific confidence that younger children are less likely to become unwell if infected with coronavirus”.

Government guidelines state that schools will not be expected to keep children two metres apart, as adults in public spaces are expected to; instead, class sizes will be smaller and “children will only mix with their small group”.

Tony Buttifint, Islington NEU’s secretary, said: “So far, the government has not engaged with the NEU to discuss any further advice on social distancing, testing in schools, PPE or about those who are vulnerable, including BME staff.

“No school or college can make plans based on the information we currently have from government.

“Our advice to members therefore is that on this basis, they should currently not engage with any planning based on a wider reopening of schools.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson

The government has also said that it wants all primary school pupils to have had a month of schooling by the summer, while it also hopes that Year 10 and Year 12 secondary school students will get some face-to-face time with teachers.

Classrooms are to have up to 15 children at a time while play times and pick-up and drop-off times will be staggered.

“I think there was a huge amount of shock in the headteacher community,” said Juliet Benis, headteacher at Ambler Primary School in Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park. “It feels a bit premature to start throwing us all into a situation we don’t know is going to be okay yet.

“I don’t understand the purpose or the reason behind the decision to pick the youngest year groups and then by adding nursery children on Monday it made the situation even more challenging.

“We are having to consider how and if we can provide this safely, whether we have the space, alongside a keyworker provision and home learning and looking at our staffing limitations.”

Anne Alexander, who has a son in Year 6 in an Islington primary school, said: “This puts people at risk who work in schools, it puts families at risk and it puts the wider society at risk.”

The DfE have recommended that teachers do not wear face masks or coverings and that there are only “very limited instances” where staff will require Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Ms Alexander said: “The government has shown complete incompetence in failing to provide basic PPE for people on the frontline in the NHS. How are primary school teachers supposed to source PPE?

“Lots of schools don’t have enough soap because they have been underfunded for so many years.”

Parents will not be fined if they do not send their children in, and schools and colleges will not be held to account for attendance.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said: “Based on the current trajectory it seems wildly optimistic, to the point of being irresponsible, to suggest that we will be in a position to return all primary children to school within the next seven weeks. This will give false hope to families and parents that we are further along the road to recovery than we actually are.”

Islington’s school’s chief Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz said: “We urge the government to issue national plans around social distancing and other safety measures for schools. ​We also urge the government to secure a comprehensive and detailed dialogue with school leaders, teaching unions and local authorities to address continuing concerns.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Nothing can replace being in the classroom, which is why I want to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.

“The latest scientific advice indicates it will be safe for more children to return to school from June 1, but we will continue to limit the overall numbers in school and introduce protective measures to prevent transmission.”

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