The row between teachers and unions over when and how to reopen our schools exploded last night.
In an extraordinary intervention, former education secretary David Blunkett accused the unions of ‘working against the interests of children’ by continuing to frustrate teachers who are desperate to get back into the classroom.
And current Education Secretary Gavin Williamson demanded unions do their ‘duty’ and stop their opposition.
Writing for the Daily Mail, he said children need to start returning to classrooms ‘in the interests of their welfare and education’.
Ministers have drawn up plans for a ‘phased’ return after the summer half-term, with some junior classes potentially going back from June 1. However, while most teachers have worked hard to help their pupils during the lockdown, education unions have told the Government to ‘step back’ from the plans – and urged their members not to co-operate.
In his article for the Mail today, Mr Williamson paid tribute to the skills of teachers, saying: ‘Parents are doing a fantastic job helping children learn at home, but nothing can take the place of a teacher.’
But he urged unions to do their ‘duty’ and drop their blanket objections to a June 1 return, saying: ‘All of us in education have a duty to work together to get children back to school.’
The battle between teachers and unions spilled has exploded as ministers warned disadvantaged pupils would lose out on valuable teaching time
Former Labour education secretary David Blunkett accused teaching unions yesterday of ‘working against the interests of children’.
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, said children from disadvantaged backgrounds faced a ‘potential decade of educational disadvantage’ unless schools went back soon. He added: ‘The unions have got to engage on this.’
The National Education Union (NEU), which has 450,000 members, has described the Government’s plans as ‘reckless’ and advised teachers to ‘not engage’ with the move.
The NASUWT, the UK’s second largest teachers’ union, last night threatened to sue school heads if teachers were ‘expected to go into a school that is not safe’.
Ministers are concerned that if the unions sabotage a return to school, many of the most disadvantaged youngsters will lose out on vital education.
And there is an acceptance that many parents will be unable to return to work until schools are open again. Mr Williamson said extensive measures had been put in place for a secure return to school, adding: ‘Safety comes first.’
The National Education Union, which has 450,000 members, has described the government’s plan to get teachers back in schools on June 1 as ‘reckless’. It is headed up by Mary Bousted
Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, has warned that disadvantaged pupils risk losing out on valuable time in the classroom due to the unions actions
Union chiefs have been offered a briefing with the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty this afternoon to reassure them the plans are safe for children, staff and parents.
Lord Blunkett said he was ‘deeply critical’ of the NEU’s approach, saying all sides had to ‘work together to get over fear as well as dealing with the genuine risk’.
He told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: ‘It is about how can we work together to make it work as safely – we can’t 100 per cent – as safely as possible. Anyone who works against that in my view is working against the interests of children.’
Lord Blunkett said other workers, such as those in supermarkets, had accepted a level of risk in performing their jobs as he suggested teachers should do the same.
And he said the most disadvantaged pupils were being penalised, adding: ‘They will not have tutors to be able to recover, they will not have parents who had higher education, they will rely entirely on us getting back to normal as quickly as possible.’ The back to school message came as:
- Liverpool’s Labour mayor Joe Anderson said he was ready to ‘resist’ plans to reopen schools, saying the level of infection in the city was still too high;
- Ministers confirmed a new antibody test that can detect if someone has had coronavirus in just 18 minutes will be rolled out in days;
- The Government agreed a £1.6billion bailout for Transport for London to keep services in the capital going;
- Diabetes was identified as a major risk factor after official figures showed that more than a quarter of those who have died from coronavirus also had the condition;
- The Office for Budget Responsibility warned that Britain’s budget deficit was on course to hit £300billion this year, with measures to prop up the economy costing £123billion;
- Britain’s official coronavirus death toll rose by 428 to 33,614.
Private sector says we could re-open in weeks
Private schools have been working around ‘around the clock’ using online learning – and are confident of successfully reopening on the Government’s timetable.
Despite taking a significant financial hit due to the pandemic, fee-paying schools have been leading the way in responding to the challenges, sector leaders said.
Top schools including Eton College and the Perse School, Cambridge, have been posting free educational resources which are accessible to all young people.
Professor Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said his 1,300 member schools were ‘very pleased that there will be limited openings after June 1’. He added: ‘They are enthusiastic about the idea that they can see pupils for things like university application discussions and to enable pupils to do those things that can’t be done online, like coursework, science practicals and art.’
Neil Roskilly, chief executive of the Independent Schools Association, which has more than 500 member schools, said: ‘They have been working around the clock on online provision and plans to welcome back pupils to the classroom.
‘The huge majority of teachers will be putting their interests first.’
Boris Johnson ordered the closure of schools on March 18, just days before the wider lockdown.
Many schools have remained open to look after vulnerable children and those of frontline ‘key’ workers. But in practice, most have only had tiny numbers attending.
Under the Government’s plans, children in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 could start to go back to school as early as June 1. Children will be placed in small classes and rigorous procedures are being put in place to limit spread of the virus.
Ministers hope to get all primary children back for a month before the summer holidays. Secondary pupils in Years 10 and 12, who have GCSE and A-level exams next year, will go back part time to allow for catch-up sessions with tutors.
Education sources said Mr Williamson was happy for his 15-year-old daughter, who is in Year 10, to go back to school.
Sir Anthony Seldon, former headmaster of Wellington College, said: ‘Teachers want to and need to be back in schools. As long as the scientists say they can, it is utterly wrong for unions to try to block and discourage teachers.’
But union leaders yesterday insisted they had grave concerns about an early return to school.
Mary Bousted, joint general-secretary of the NEU, described the bid to reopen schools as ‘nothing short of reckless’.
And in a letter last night Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said it was putting schools ‘on notice’ that they faced potential legal action for ‘breach of duty of care and personal injury due to foreseeable risk’ if they asked teachers to go back to work too soon.
Gavin Williamson: For sake of all pupils, Unions must do duty
By Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, for the Daily Mail
Rarely do I find myself nodding along in agreement with past Labour ministers but when I heard former Labour education secretary David Blunkett on the radio this week saying why it’s important to get the most disadvantaged children back into schools as soon as we can, I thought he was making very good sense.
As Education Secretary, I pay attention when experts give me advice – I’d get into hot water very quickly if I didn’t. If, based on the latest scientific advice, we can get a limited number of children back to school, then I believe it’s my duty to do all I can to get them back there because being in school with a teacher is the best way to learn.
Of course safety comes first but we must also be aware of the potential damage to a child’s education from not getting them back in the classroom.
It is now over seven weeks since schools were restricted to all but a very small number of children and until the rate of infection from coronavirus starts to come down, we cannot bring more students back.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Gavin Williamson called on unions to support moves to start a staged reopening of schools
In that time I’ve been constantly talking to heads and teachers’ unions about how best to open schools in a phased and careful way. Later today I have arranged for union leaders to meet the Chief Medical Officer and other experts so they can be briefed on the scientific advice underpinning our approach.
The good news is that we are now past the peak of the virus. At the weekend the Prime Minister set out his roadmap for recovery and the second step of that plan is to start to get more children back into classrooms. Let me spell out why these proposals have put the interests of all our children first. The best place for youngsters to learn is in school and I have wanted to get more children back there as soon as possible. Parents are doing a fantastic job helping them to learn at home but nothing can take the place of a teacher.
It is known that the first few years of a child’s education are so important.
It is during this time that young students begin to develop essential social skills and start to learn the basics that will have a huge bearing on how well they do later in life.
That is why younger children are at the head of the queue to go back to school, along with pupils who will be moving up to secondary school and those older pupils who are going to be sitting their GCSEs and A Levels next year.
Now I want to be clear, this is the first phase of a controlled and careful return to school. It’s not happening overnight and it isn’t going to happen without schools putting in place a range of protective measures to reduce transmission. The safety of children and their teachers is my No 1 priority.
I know some teaching unions still have concerns, just as I know parents and teachers have some worries.
I intend to carry on talking to all of them and working with them on any issues they may have.
Schools in other nations have achieved started to open following the pandemic. Above are children queuing using traffic cones at a primary school in Strasbourg, France
All of us in education have a duty to work together to get children back to school.
Let me reassure families that we are giving schools all the guidance and support they will need to welcome pupils back.
This includes keeping class sizes small, making sure children stay within small groups, and being rigorous about hygiene, cleaning and staggering break and mealtimes. We’re also paying close attention to what they’re doing in other countries, such as Denmark, where despite some initial concerns, children are back and adapting, as they always seem to do.
Children thrive and grow in schools best when they’re enjoying being with their friends and teachers.
It is time to start bringing some of our children back in the interests of their welfare and education.
But this will be done carefully so it’s right for our children, right for your family and those who work in schools and right for our communities.
If Europe can, why can’t we?
- Reopened primary schools and nurseries a month ago, and has seen infection rates continue to fall
- Children kept in small groups of ten to 12, with minimum contact
- Groups arrive at separate times, eat lunch separately, stay in their own playground zones and keep one teacher for all classes
- Children sit two metres apart at individual desks and do not share water bottles or stationery
- Reopened schools for older children earlier this month and plans to allow younger year groups back in summer term
- Students in final year were first back for exams, and told to disinfect their hands with sanitiser and sit at least two metres apart
- A pilot scheme sees teenagers are disease-tested every four days, and swab their own throats
÷ Nurseries and primary schools were allowed back from Monday, with secondary schools to gradually reopen next week
÷ Pictures at one school showed children sitting alone in ‘isolation’ chalk squares in their playground
÷ Pupils aged 11 to 15 expected to wear face masks – made available for those who do not have them
÷ Class sizes kept to 15 and creches capped at a maximum of ten children per group
÷ Expected to reopen next week, but row has broken out over plans to install cameras in classrooms
÷ Government wanted to allow live-streaming of lessons to allow smaller classes, with families deciding if their children attend school or learn from home
÷ But teaching unions and opposition parties have objected over privacy fears and said scheme poses a ‘serious risk’ to students
÷ Kept schools open for children under 16 throughout the outbreak
÷ Pupils and teachers with any symptoms were urged to stay at home, and schools and colleges for older teenagers were closed
÷ School premises cleaned at least once a day. Staggered break times, limits on assemblies and spaced out desks and chairs
÷ Allowed children back to school yesterday with strict social distancing and hand-washing rules
÷ Arrival times staggered and unused spaces turned into classes to allow pupils to spread out
÷ Schools will switch between classroom and distance teaching if infections spikes again
÷ Nurseries and primary schools reopened in April amid some opposition, but health experts said there had been no rise in infection rates
÷ Children have been kept in small groups that have a minimum of physical interaction
÷ Other schools and colleges across the country were allowed to reopen this week
÷ Allowed primary schools to reopen from Monday
÷ Secondary schools and colleges will be allowed to open next month, provided authorities do not see a rise in infections
÷ Primary schools partially reopened on Monday, along with nurseries, libraries, hairdressers and beauty salons
÷ Spain and Italy said schools will remain shut until September
÷ In Ireland schools will remain closed until at least September, but nurseries could reopen in June
We will sue if our teachers are put at risk
By Josh White, Education reporter for the Daily Mail
Britain’s second-largest teaching union last night threatened to sue school chiefs if teachers are ‘put at risk’ in the classroom.
The NASUWT, which has 310,000 members, has written to heads, academy bosses and local authorities, outlining their stance.
Along with the National Education Union, the NASUWT has been at the forefront of efforts to delay the reopening of schools until September, but their objections have been described by critics as ‘political posturing’ and ‘scaremongering’.
Darren Northcott, the union’s national official for education, told 5Live on Wednesday: ‘There’s a real risk here that some schools will believe that they can safely open from June 1, when we are very clear that they can’t.’
The union last night ramped up its attempts to torpedo the plans by threatening court action against school bosses, trust chief executives, and local authorities who ignore ‘serious health, safety and welfare issues’ in the classroom..
It came as the NEU also increased its pressure on ministers. The union said last night:
- Teachers should keep online tuition ‘to a minimum’;
- They should not do any online teaching that they feel uncomfortable about;
- Teachers are worried about the security of online teaching;
- And they should not be expected to carry out routine marking or grading of pupils’work
The NASUWT letter says the union is ‘left with no alternative but to put employers and the Government on notice, by reserving our members’ legal rights in the context of a tortious claim for breach of duty of care and personal injury due to foreseeable risk, and any other legal recourse available’.
Liverpools’ Labour mayor may block return to class
Pupils in Liverpool might not go back to school with the rest of England after its mayor warned he would not ‘take risks with children’s lives’.
Joe Anderson vowed to ‘resist’ reopening after half term unless the city’s infection rate had dropped. As of Monday, Liverpool had 1,515 confirmed cases, equivalent to 306 in every 100,000 people – higher than the overall rate in England of 244 per 100,000.
Labour councillor Mr Anderson said: ‘This is a life and death decision. If we lose one child or one teacher or one teaching assistant or one school cook, that’s one too many. Our levels of Covid-19 infections are higher than everywhere else and I’m not about to take risks with children’s or teaching staff’s lives. Only when we are convinced it’s safe for children to return will we allow it.’
The ex-social worker, who is running Liverpool from home after he was forced to shield for health reasons, was attacked by some online critics. One tweeted: ‘We need “can doers” to guide us out of this crisis and save jobs and the economy. “Can’t doers” like him should admit they’re out of their depth and let others take over.’
But Steve Rotherham, the Metro Mayor responsible for the whole region, said: ‘Mayor Anderson is right that the safeguarding of our children, teachers and school staff has to be the number one priority.’
‘The NASUWT is clear that no teacher should be expected to go into a school that is not safe, and until it can be demonstrated that it is safe to do so, we will be continuing to support and advise members on that basis.’
Signed by union general secretary Dr Patrick Roach, the letter concludes: ‘The NASUWT recognises that schools and employers have been placed in a situation where the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying, and will therefore appreciate that there can be no compromise on health and safety.
‘If this means that schools are unable to open safely before September because they are unable to make arrangements to safeguard their staff and pupils, then that position must be accepted.’ Despite undermining ministers’ attempts to reopen the country’s schools, the NEU says teachers should keep online tuition ‘to a minimum’ is necessary because face-to-face teaching ‘cannot be easily replicated’. It also told members that ‘no teacher should be expected to carry out any online teaching with which they feel uncomfortable or in the absence of agreed protocols’.
It is understood some teachers have privacy concerns, and fear their lessons could be recorded or manipulated by pupils. But Professor Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said: ‘There are appropriate safeguarding policies in place and it is all going pretty well. So those pupils who are not receiving online teaching, simply because their teachers think it is risky, have every reason to feel very disappointed.’
The NEU adds that teachers ‘should not be expected to carry out routine marking or grading’, saying: ‘To do so would be to disadvantage those who do not have the resources and support available at home to make that fair.’
For secondary school pupils, many of whom will be facing exams next year, the swingeing union restrictions state that teachers ‘should not be asked to personally contact their students daily’, except those who are vulnerable.
Neil Roskilly, of the Independent Schools Association, said the NEU’s fears about online learning were ‘theoretical’. He added: ‘There’s nothing unsurmountable for schools with good safeguarding policies. Schools are very used to dealing with safeguarding issues.’
Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign For Real Education, said: ‘Many teachers are being courageous and still working but a minority are enjoying it.’
NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said last night: ‘The NEU is not against online working. Our members are using online learning to support their pupils. Our guidance is to help them do this safely for themselves and for their pupils.
‘Arrangements for online learning must also protect teachers’ and children’s privacy and ensure children are kept safe while online. The NEU is supporting teachers and families to do the best they can with the resources available to them.’