Gavin Williamson urges teachers to return to classrooms despite growing concern over ‘risky’ plan to reopen schools

Education secretary faces call from anxious member of public for schools to stay shut in Covid hotspots

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Saturday 16 May 2020 21:33 BST
Worried mother confronts Gavin Williamson during briefing with demand for schools to stay shut in coronavirus hotspots

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has issued an appeal to teachers to go back to the classroom for the good of their pupils, in the face of growing union and local authority anxiety about government plans to reopen schools in England as early as 1 June.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing, Mr Williamson insisted that ministers were taking “the most cautious and precautionary approach” to lifting the schools lockdown and would not ask headteachers to open the gates unless the government’s five tests for a safe exit from lockdown were met.

But he was confronted by a worried woman from Covid-19 hotspot Gateshead who branded the back-to-school plan “very risky” and called on ministers to consider limiting the return to areas with lower rates of infection.

Deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries signalled support for an approach tailored to local infection rates, telling the briefing that the crucial reinfection rate R will vary from place to place and between venues like hospitals, care homes and the wider community within each area.

“Without putting ideas into politicians’ mouths, I think it’s really important we do understand that on a regional basis,” she said. The most recent Public Health England statistics suggest that R – which must remain below one for the disease to continue declining – currently varies between 0.4 in London to around 0.8 in the northeast and Yorkshire.

Asked whether ministers should take account of the British Medical Association’s support for unions who have urged caution on timing, Dr Harries pointedly said: “As a medical adviser to government, I will be very disappointed if they are not listening to doctors.”

The deepening row over schools came as the latest official figures showed 468 coronavirus fatalities in all settings on Friday, bringing the total UK death toll to 34,466.

Teachers’ unions have called for more answers from the government after meetings with scientific advisers and ministers on Friday.

One union leader said the evidence presented – which included data on infections in schools in New South Wales and the Netherlands at times when the prevalence of Covid-19 was lower than in the UK – was “flimsy at best”.

In a letter to the National Education Union backing their cautious approach, the BMA said: “We cannot risk a second spike or take actions which would increase the spread of this virus, particularly as we see sustained rates of infection across the UK.”

Meanwhile, councils in Liverpool and Hartlepool have said they will not reopen primary schools to children in reception classes and years 1 and 6 at the start of June as proposed.

In a recorded video question at the No 10 press conference, a woman identified only as Lynsey told Mr Williamson: “As a resident of Gateshead, which currently has the highest rate of Covid infections in the UK, I think the imminent reopening of schools in my area is a very risky decision with potentially dangerous consequences.

“Why aren’t the government taking a regional approach to the reopening of schools due to the significant differences in infection rates across each area of the UK? Surely this would be a safer and more controlled way of easing lockdown.”

The education secretary dodged the issue of regional variations in the timetable for return, but said: “It’s vitally important for all children to have the opportunity to come back to school and be with their teachers. But we are doing this in a very, very cautious and phased way.”

And he suggested that school governors should follow government guidance to reopen even in cases where it conflicts with advice from local authorities.

“What we would ask them to do is look at the guidance very, very carefully and recognise the fact that we are there to provide the very best for every single child who goes to school,” he said.

“The best way of doing that, the best way of protecting children, the best way of giving them the best opportunities in life is actually to have them coming back into school – and this is a very small, tentative step in what I believe is the right direction if we pass those five tests.”

Mr Williamson insisted that his “door is always open” for talks with unions and other organisation representing schools and governors.

But asked whether he would urge teachers to ignore their unions if they advised them to stay at home, he stressed the personal commitment of classroom teachers to their pupils.

“Teachers have been absolute heroes, all the way through this crisis,” he said. “They have been leading by example, they’ve been going into school, they’ve been running lessons not in the classroom but reaching out into people’s homes.

“They understand the importance of schooling, they understand the impact they can make on people’s lives, they understand and know the importance of what they are doing and how they can change the lives and the life chances of all children – especially those who are most disadvantaged.

Councils in Liverpool and Hartlepool say they will not reopen primary schools to children in reception classes and years 1 and 6 at the start of June as proposed
Councils in Liverpool and Hartlepool say they will not reopen primary schools to children in reception classes and years 1 and 6 at the start of June as proposed (PA)

“I would say to all teachers, thank you for what you are doing, please keep doing what you are doing and I want to work with you to make sure we deliver the very best for all of our children.”

He added: “I always want to talk, we want to find practical solutions to make sure that those children from that most disadvantaged background don’t lose out as a result of this crisis.”

Pressure on the unions increased after the children’s commissioner for England called on the two sides to “stop squabbling” and agree on a plan. Anne Longfield said she was in “despair” at the increasingly entrenched positions being taken by the two sides, and that the interests of children were being ignored.

The general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, Patrick Roach, welcomed Mr Williamson’s “commitment to discuss a way forward which will help to ensure that schools can reopen safely to more children”.

He added: “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.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “We are merely asking the government questions about the scientific basis for its approach in order to ensure that everybody can have confidence that it is safe to return, while at the same time supporting our members in preparing to reopen schools for eligible children from the agreed date.”

Former chief scientific adviser Prof Sir Mark Walport, now chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, said that a phased return to school in Denmark had not led to an increase in the transmission rate of Covid-19.

“It is very harmful for children and complicated for families if their children aren’t in school,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “It is clear that although children do get infected – and the evidence is that they are infected probably as often as older people – nevertheless they show fewer symptoms and almost certainly transmit less than older people.

“Class sizes are being kept low, not all school years are going back, so it is being done in a very cautious fashion.”

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