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Back to school plans set up for failure, unions warn

Boris Johnson’s plan to get all children back to school full-time in September are likely to crumble, unions and education leaders have warned, citing a “piecemeal” government strategy and the failure to consult schools, teachers and parents adequately.

Education leaders from across the political spectrum warned there was a serious risk of a repeat of last month’s debacle, when plans to bring children back to primary schools stalled under the weight of objections from teachers and parents who said the government had not considered the medical and practical impact.

On Tuesday, the prime minister told the Commons schools would be able to return with “full attendance” in September, an assertion Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, a headteachers’ union, said was “pure fantasy” given social distancing requirements.

The government has since indicated that social distancing will not be followed in schools but leaders are still concerned that a promised full return faces prohibitive obstacles.

Even those previously supportive, such as Steve Chalke, head of the Oasis chain of academies who in May backed plans for a return of some primary school children, described Mr Johnson’s intention to reopen schools fully in September as “not viable”.

“There are obviously a huge number of concerns around schools going back, and a plan that says ‘all years can go back in September into existing schools’ is just not reasonable or viable,” he said.

Teachers and local trade unionists protest in Lewisham against the reopening of schools by the government on June 1 © Guy Smallman/Getty

Education leaders are now demanding urgent clarity over what measures will be in place — and transparency on the scientific justification that it is safe — so they can prepare for September. The Department for Education is expected to announce detailed plans next week.

Documents shared with unions this week confirm the government is aiming for a full return in September, with measures to make schools “Covid secure” without social distancing. Attendance, it says, should be mandatory except for those who are clinically vulnerable or isolating, with the threat of prosecution of parents who do not comply.

Proposals to stop the spread of coronavirus, however, are still being examined. Possible measures include keeping small numbers of children in “bubbles”, which could extend to whole classes or year groups; staggering school arrival and departure times; and planning for some remote learning and localised lockdowns.

Proposals to stop the spread of coronavirus are still being examined © Oli Scarff/AFP

Mr Barton said government guidance so far had been “voluminous to the point of being unmanageable” and the government’s handling “piecemeal and lacking in a coherent strategy”.

He said schools urgently needed “crystal clear” guidance, with the scientific rationale given for any approach and an outline for a “plan B” in the event of a second wave in the autumn. A Thursday meeting between Nick Gibb, schools minister, and union representatives was “constructive”, according to two people who attended.

Mr Chalke said practical questions over whether there were enough sinks for handwashing, sufficient budgets for more frequent cleaning and enough space for distanced groups needed to be addressed. “What is going to have to be in place is a huge hygiene drive approach — so more money and some remote learning. We do not believe it is possible or responsible to announce that all schools will be back in September,” he said.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the government needed to demonstrate how a full return could go ahead without Covid-19 spreading among students and pushing the R number up across the community.

A pupil washes her hands at a school in London © Justin Setterfield/Getty

Other professionals were going back to work with social distancing, or personal protective equipment. That had been deemed unnecessary in schools, he said, putting vulnerable staff, pupils and their family members at potentially lethal risk. “We need some science to say that that is ‘Covid secure’, you can’t lay that at the door of headteachers,” he said. “There are teachers in these risk-categories and some of them will die if they get the virus.”

With many schools telling parents that disruption and “blended” learning was likely to continue into the autumn, Mr Johnson’s announcement has sowed confusion, according to John Jolly, the chief executive of Parentkind, a charity supporting parent engagement in schools. “There is a complete mismatch between what schools are sensibly telling parents at the moment and the government messaging,” he said.

Relations between unions and ministers have become openly strained. In parliament, senior Tories have disparaged the NEU, which Gavin Williamson, education secretary, dubbed the “No Education Union”. He accused it of being obstructive in a closed-door meeting with MPs, according to the Times.

Mr Williamson has held weekly phone calls with unions and education groups, but privately those on the calls complained to the Financial Times about the lack of detail. “Williamson just burbles. It is clear that you’re not listening to the decision maker,” said one person.

There are concerns that vulnerable staff, pupils, and their family members will be put at potentially lethal risk © Leon Neal/Getty

A second educationalist involved in consultations also questioned Mr Williamson’s competence, noting his professional experience before entering politics amounted to managing a fireplace manufacturer, a pottery company and an architectural design firm. “Gavin’s credentials in terms of running state education, his qualification is that he went to school,” said the person, who asked to remain anonymous to preserve relations with government.

The DfE rejected the suggestion that it had not adequately consulted the sector, saying it was working to get “all pupils” back to school in September because it was “vital for their education and wellbeing”. It added that schools could claim for the unforeseen costs of coronavirus and said measures including a £1bn catch-up package, announced last week, were securing children’s education during the pandemic.

“We are working across government and with the sector to ensure plans for September are fully in place and we will publish further information next week,” the department said.

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