I have had many messages on the issue of the re-opening of schools. It’s been invaluable to hear directly from teachers and school staff working on the frontline, as well as from parents and carers. I very much share your concerns and I have been working closely with the National Education Union during this crisis.
The need for safety
Despite what some Government ministers have said, I know that every teacher and school leader desperately wants to get as many children as possible back in school, but safety is at the heart of concern about the rushed June 1st deadline.
Planning should be based on safe conditions, not an arbitrary date. It should involve close consultation with schools and it should be backed up by scientific evidence that it is safe for schools to re-open.
The clear advice from the World Health Organisation is that an effective system to test, treat and trace every contact should be in place before lockdowns are lifted. We do not yet have such a system in place and I have very little confidence that it will be by the beginning of June. What’s more, teachers and the NEU are having to make renewed calls for PPE for schools.
It’s also not at all clear how social distancing can be practised in schools, particularly with younger children and those with special educational needs, and it is profoundly disappointing that Ministers have taken this decision without the necessary consultation.
As one head teacher wrote to me: “How on Earth do they expect us to get small children of 4-5 years to socially distance from us or each other? I can only imagine the people making these decisions haven’t been around children for a very long time and definitely not in a primary classroom where licking, biting, spitting and hugging are the norm.”
I have spoken with the Head of Downs View School, an excellent school in the city, offering specialist education to children with severe learning difficulties, profound / multiple learning difficulties, and autism. It has been rated "outstanding" by Ofsted for four consecutive inspections, but the Head is under intolerable pressure to somehow balance the respite needs of families with the safety of staff and pupils. The guidance from the Government shows no understanding of the needs and behaviours of young people with severe and complex difficulties and places schools in an impossible position.
Teachers, parents and carers' organisations such as Amaze are desperately concerned about the welfare of our most vulnerable children and young people. The answer cannot be to force schools like Downs View to put lives at risk by filling their classrooms, nor should the Government be loading on to individual schools and teachers the responsibility for implementing impossible, ill-thought through guidelines.
I know people are also deeply concerned about the impact on children from growing inequalities and isolation while schools remain closed, and I share those anxieties. There is a very difficult balance to be struck over safety in relation to the virus and the wellbeing of children, both physically and emotionally.
This is why it is critical that the evidence of the impact of re-opening schools is made available. We also need to know that it can be done safely.
I will do everything I can to make the case to Ministers that they need to work with teachers, parents and carers to build trust and confidence. The Education Secretary should go back to the drawing board and negotiate co-operatively with the frontline staff he expects - and needs - to deliver his plans.