Coronavirus: Ministers accused of ‘abdicating responsibility’ over schools reopening plan

school reopening

Ministers have been accused of “abdicating responsibility and handing it to heads” over their contentious plans for some pupils to return to school next month.

School leaders have been told to prepare for the potential return of pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 to their classrooms on June 1.

The guidance reads less like a serious proposal and more like abdicating responsibility and handing it to heads

But they face having to do so amid patchy government guidance on how to keep pupils safe and disputes with staff who have been advised by unions not to engage on any reopening planning.

Meanwhile, parents are also concerned about whether it’s safe to send their children back to school, with leaders urged to “manage expectations” and be “open and honest with parents about the challenges”.

Jonny Uttley, chief executive of The Education Alliance academy trust, said the DfE’s guidance “reads less like a serious proposal and more like abdicating responsibility and handing it to heads”.

A poll of more than 8,000 school staff by Teacher Tapp showed 43 per cent believe the government’s response to Covid-19 had been “very bad”, while a further 34 per cent said it had been “fairly bad”.

Ministers this week scrambled to reassure school staff they would be listened to. Unions representing education staff had urged the government to “step back” from its target date, amid fears over safety.

The National Education Union and Unison have even gone as far as instructing their members – mostly teaching and support staff – not to engage with planning for a June 1 return.

Letters advising this have been passed on by staff to leaders.

The Guardian reported last night the NASUWT union had also threatened legal action against councils and the government if teachers were forced back into classrooms during the epidemic.

The NAHT said it recognised the “significant challenges this has posed for our members”.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of ASCL, warned of a risk of a “splintering of trust” between leaders and some staff.

“That, if it happened, would be a terrible legacy of a period that needs collaboration rather than discord,” he said in a briefing to members.

Heads are also facing tricky conversations with parents.

For example, Uttley highlighted the expectation of schools operating in “bubbles” of no more than 15 pupils per class (see page 6).

“That puts almost every school at max 50 per cent capacity. That’s absolutely fine, but be honest with parents and stop over-promising. At the moment there’s a real mismatch between expectation and the reality.”

Government guidance published yesterday evening also stated that, as primary schools re-open, it “may be difficult to maintain the same level of remote education” for pupils who remain at home – which is likely to land badly with parents (page 7).

Leaders have been told by their unions that it’s right to start preparing to re-open as per the government plans.

But the teaching unions’ resistance to the plans has been questioned. Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, accused them of “scaremongering”.

He said the “only consideration” behind the decision was the “best interests and the welfare of children and those who work in schools”.

But he added: “Sometimes scaremongering and making people fear is really unfair, and not a welcome pressure that is to be placed on families, children and teachers alike.”

Lord Blunkett, the former education secretary, also told Radio 4’s Today programme he was “deeply critical” of the unions’ attitude.

“It’s about how can we work together to make it work as safely, not one hundred per cent, as safely as possible. Anyone who works against that, in my view, is working against the interests of children,” he said.

However, just hours after Williamson’s “scaremongering” comments, the DfE’s chief scientific adviser admitted that he hadn’t even assessed the effectiveness of the re-opening guidance – sparking further worry (see page 9).

The NEU has stated it wants schools to open as soon as possible, but only when it is safe to do so.

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  1. David Williams

    My daughter is a primary school infants teacher and has a 2 year old daughter. I am concerned for her as she is expected to return to school on 1st June but there are numerous problems that need to be seriously resolved in so far as:-
    1. The school needs to cut down classes to 15 but they will not be able to safe distance the children as the classrooms are too small and there are insufficient classrooms to accommodate any more children.
    2. The children are too young to understand and follow safe distance
    3. What does her own 2 year old child do to be looked after when her mother is expected to be at school
    4. Children of scool age will be very much unable to safe distance themselves so it is possible that under this situation that one or more children could have coronavirus and infect other children and take the virus home to their parents and other siblings which could seriously multiply the number of cases.
    Surely it would be sensible to defer school until the end of the school holidays when hopefully the coronavirus situation may have improved considerably and the government are no longer on a wing and prayer.
    I would very much appreciate your comments on the above and any other information you can help with.
    Mant thanks

  2. Alison from cheshire

    As a very experienced reception teacher, I am fearful on too many levels.
    – I feel that the return to school is rushed and without thorough scientific advice or support.
    – I feel that the children have already suffered the trauma of an abrupt end to their exciting schooling. They cannot see their families, friends, teachers etc. They cannot go to play centres, social gatherings. This all ended abruptly.
    – I feel that they will suffer further trauma, when THINKING they are returning to school, finding that they are not being taught by their teacher, are not in the same classroom and can only see, but not mix with, a small number of friends. They will not have readily accessible resources that they are familiar with and use to enhance their learning. Instead, they will sit in a Victorian style classroom. 2 metres from friends, sit to a desk and work from there, have staggered breaks and lunches etc. This will become their new norm. A scientist (Jenny) said that they will “flourish”. Well excuse me, flourish they will NOT.
    – I feel that the children, having suffered the trauma of returning to the unfamiliar and less nurturing environment will be open to more risk than is necessary. They will mix with other children, who’s families may not have followed the government guidelines. They will be anxious. They will be suffering another trauma of uncertainty and then possible closure again.
    – I feel that we should value our young children, not experiment with them. Half the height doesn’t mean half the hearing, or half the emotion.
    – As a teacher, I feel sad that I won’t be able to cluster together for a great story-time session. That I won’t be able to reassure them that they will be fine and it will soon be back to normal. That I won’t be able to use the class bear for those in need of comfort. Sit beside them to hear and encourage them to read.
    – As a teacher, I watch social distancing among ministers in parliament. I observe PPE worn in a pharmacy, screens in supermarkets… all deemed necessary and reassuring. I as a teacher am told I need nothing. Just wash my hands. Stay alert. Stay safe. If I get it and endanger my family and mother, with Alzheimer’s, it’s somehow my own fault.
    – I feel anxious. I feel frightened. I feel used by the government to kick start the economy. This is not a child-centred approach.
    -I have continued to teach and care for key worker and vulnerable children throughout. (Schools were never closed! ) Also delivering meals to families. Unquestioningly changing the way I operate in school. Online teaching of other pupils. Reassuring parents. Even making a video of staff to say ‘Don’t Worry’ to our pupils.
    – I care. I’m professional. I want what is best for pupils, staff and our families. I do not believe that this should be rushed and carried out because the government don’t want to lose face. We need to follow Scotland and Wales.
    – Stay safe, protect our children and teachers, save lives. ❤️