Government and teaching unions told to ‘stop squabbling’ about re-opening schools

‘We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school,’ says children’s commissioner

Chiara Giordano
Saturday 16 May 2020 00:31 BST
Coronavirus: UK death toll rises by 384 to 33,998

The government and teaching unions have been told they must “stop squabbling” and agree on a plan to reopen schools.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, has urged both parties to agree on a safe, phased return to school, accompanied by “rigorous” Covid-19 testing of teachers, children and families to ease safety fears among parents.

Her comments came as she released data suggesting NHS nurseries that have remained open during the lockdown have not suffered from coronavirus outbreaks.

Ms Longfield has urged the sector to aspire for all children to return to school in some form before the summer, and to use school buildings for summer schools and family support over the holidays.

She said: “We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school.

“It’s time to stop squabbling and agree a staggered, safe return that is accompanied by rigorous testing of teachers, children and families.”

Teachers’ unions called for more answers from the government on Friday about whether children and staff will be safe if primary schools reopen in England from 1 June, following a meeting with chief scientific advisers.

One union leader said the scientific evidence presented at the briefing with the government’s chief medical officer and other experts was “flimsy at best”.

Writing in the Daily Mail on Friday, education secretary Gavin Williamson said everyone in the sector had “a duty to work together” to get children back to school.

“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,” he wrote.

Ms Longfield said: “I am disappointed that the debate about when some primary school kids can return has descended into a squabble between government and the teaching unions.

“All sides need to show a greater will to work together in the interests of children.”

New research from the children’s commissioner has found that only three out of 57 nurseries attached to NHS hospitals in England have reported a confirmed case of Covid-19 among children.

Ms Longfield has warned decisions about returning pupils to school cannot wait until a vaccine is available as school closures will worsen social mobility and damage the mental health of children.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, told the PA news agency: “There has been no squabbling on behalf of the NASUWT. The issue is very clear. We want to see schools reopening as soon as practicable.”

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.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Getting children back to school and nurseries is in their best interests and all those working in education have a duty to work together to do so.”

However, on Friday doctors warned against sticking to the 1 June target date. The British Medical Association (BMA) said teachers had been right to urge caution, The Guardian reported. In a letter to the National Education Union, the BMA wrote: “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.”

Additional reporting by Press Association.

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