DfE chief scientific adviser admits he hasn’t assessed school reopening guidance

The Department for Education’s chief scientific adviser admitted he has not assessed whether guidance on reopening schools is effective, adding the current advice is “draft” and “will be developed”.

Appearing in front of the Parliamentary science and technology committee today, Osama Rahman also admitted the DfE had done no modelling on the impact on transmission rates of starting to reopen schools after the May half term break.

During a hearing that left some MPs visibly bemused, Rahman also suggested the government guidance issued yesterday on safety is a “draft”, and will be reissued after further consultation with Public Health England.

He also said the decision to reopen schools was made by cabinet, not the DfE.

Carol Monaghan, the SNP’s education spokesperson, said that as a former teacher, she “did not think the profession will be satisfied or put at ease with what they are hearing”.

It comes just hours after education secretary Gavin Williamson accused unions who have raised concerns about the reopening plans as “scaremongering”.

Asked about the transmission rate among children during the hearing, Rahman said the evidence is mixed, and there’s a “low degree of confidence in evidence they might transmit it less”.

Monaghan responded: “We’re putting together hundreds of potential vectors that can then go and transmit. Is that correct?”

Rahman said: “Possibly, depending on school sizes.” (See video of exchange below)

‘The department has not done any modelling’

Education committee chair Robert Halfon asked what scientific evidence base underpinned the decision to reopen schools to pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6, and what modelling had been done.

“The department has not done any modelling,” Rahman replied. “One of the SAGE groups has done various bits of modelling for different scenarios on what years you can bring back. My understanding is those will be published in due course.”

Halfon responded that “surely you must have scientific evidence the base underpinning the department’s decision?”, to which Rahman responded: “That was a cabinet decision following advice from SAGE.”

When asked how he was sure the cabinet had taken the evidence into account, Rahman said that advice goes to the secretary of state who then expresses his view to cabinet.

“The secretary of state is informed of what the science says, as are policy officials in the department.”

DfE guidance for schools is “first draft”

Rahman also admitted he had made no assessment on how effectively actions proposed by the government for schools to reopen safely can be implemented.

He said the department is working with Public Health England on the “first draft advice” and will be “discussing this further with PHE and others … in terms of feedback”.

He later said he would expect the guidance published yesterday to “be developed”, adding: “Certainly, my role will be to continue, if we have updated consensus on the science from SAGE, will be to ensure that that feeds into the guidance.”

When pressed that any reissuing of guidance gives schools “very little time” to prepare to open, Rahman said: “The June 1 opening is dependent on a bunch of conditions being met as I think the prime minister announced. So schools have been asked to prepare for that opening.”

Adviser didn’t attend SAGE’s PPE meetings

Teachers have raised concerns about government guidance stating in most situations they aren’t required to wear personal protective equipment.

When asked what evidence the department has considered in relation to this, Rahman said: “I don’t know, I don’t think I was necessary at the PPE meeting. You’ll have to ask SAGE that.”

Greg Clark, chair of the committee, replied: “But you’re the chief scientific adviser to the DfE.”

Rahman responded: “I am. I’m not sure when they discussed PPE, it was a general PPE discussion.”

He had earlier said that he gets the SAGE minutes and papers for meetings he attends, which are used to brief  the department’s operational centre and minister’s offices.

Williamson earlier told the Commons he was “more than happy” to share “all the advice that we have received” from SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory group.

He also revealed he’d asked scientific advisers “to give briefings for the sector” to “help them understand” the decision.

“When you have medical and scientific advice that is saying that it is the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do so, and the only responsible thing to do,” he told MPs.

He did not give a date for when any advice would be published.

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    • Angela

      In view of the gap it is going to make for childrens learning have the government thought about changing the school year so it starts and ends at a different time say January or even easter. Then the kids will get to continue with that year of learning and not put children or people at risk.

  1. Julie Kirton

    How on earth can any parent, or teacher, believe anything the government presents as factual after that presentation
    How despicable that children should be sent back to school on a date randomly pulled out of the air?
    There has been no consideration for teachers, TAs , or children and their families, as to being safe from the virus. There is no real data to say it is safe to open schools. How can this be possible?

    • David Gordon

      When I used to work in the corporate sector we used to refer to these dates as ‘Brown dates’ for obvious reasons – they were pulled from somewhere unmentionable with no reasoning behind them other than some Chief executive decided that the action had to be performed by that date.

  2. Mrs moran

    i work in a special needs school and a majority of our pupils will have no understanding of 2 meters distancing or any control of their staff trying to keep a safe distance another thing a lot of out pupils have severe and multiple medical conditions which could prove fatal if they caught covid 19 how are we supposed to keep our students and ourselves safe

    • Sylvia Marsh

      Politely refuse to reopen school. It’s ludicrous to be opening any primary or special schools while this virus is still circulating. Your school, and other special schools have an even greater reason to refuse. What can they do to you? I’m sure the nation would support the refusal. We’re all watching!

  3. Amanda

    I am a Registered childminder and am very anxious about having children back into my home after 7 weeks without them.

    Have you not though about what is being said that we can have childminder children in our homes but not our relatives this does not make sense.
    And why an earth would you want to send Children back to school while the virus is still around then put the childminders, parents, carers at more risk.
    I am baffled by all this maybe you all need to have a dame good think.

    • Sylvia Marsh

      Amanda – it doesn’t make sense & has not been thought through properly. If the Govt. want to do this, are they prepared to supply scary PPE to all in contact with babies & school children. It’s enough to give little ones nightmares! Be strong and state your case firmly. Good luck!!

  4. Coleen Collins

    The whole idea is unrealistic and unsafe. I am glad I have recently retired. my school was a huge secondary school it seemed over crowded at the best of times. Not enough access to hand washing facilities, not enough room to move around safely, not enough staff to ensure kids do what they are told. 25 members of staff made redundant last summer austerity meaning money shortfall. What about travelling to school all our children are bussed to school that cant happen??
    Children do not do what they are told many come to school to socialise with friends.
    I would not like to be a primary school teacher either even more difficult.
    Politicians have no idea how a school works.

  5. anne odling-smee

    If you dont do your homework you can tell lies then say the dog ate it. In this case the unions are the dog. Beyond despair. Unions do not flinch.

  6. Pauline Simpson

    I think this is biggest load of nonsense I’ve ever heard in my lifetime!!! This Government has played about with people’s lives enough before and during this pandemic!!! Our children are precious to us and and believe me waiting until the very least September is the right thing to do.

  7. Mandy

    Until there’s a clear strategy put in place in collaboration with school staff and the DfE we need to wait before pupils return to school. I’m of the opinion that the present pandemic gives opportunity to review and make changes into how education, especially within secondary schools needs to be delivered. For example changes to teaching GCSE could eliminate exams by incorporating TMAs and projects which would provide more accurate assessment of student’s knowledge and application of subject areas. That we move more towards assessing younger pupils through their development of comprehension, comunication and thinking skills, especially as more usage of computer and other information technologies are being used today. I propose that there’s more inclusion in the return phase as the present proposal ignores the disabled and more vulnerable pupils.. . that we air on the side of caution and return end of August early September

    • Roger Warren

      What you describe is where we were heading before Gove swept it all away. The rise in student mental health problems since his tenure makes yesterday’s govt briefing all the more laughable and infuriating. I presume they think we’ve all forgotten about the damage Gove did.

  8. Janet Downs

    Schools are being told to open in just over two weeks’ time but we discover the decision was a political decision. The government’s response – that teacher unions are scaremongering. The evidence that children are less likely to spread the virus is not convincing. But, as so often with the DfE, evidence is only accepted if it chimes with ministerial wishes. If it doesn’t, it’s dismissed as a hysterical reaction from the Blob.

  9. Mrs Diane hall

    I don’t believe in small children going back to school first as they do not understand the no hugs rule especially if they are disabled I have a disabled grandson . I agreed with his father that they should not be returned until sept at the earliest. At least 11 year old understands better. I don’t understand how people can do these jobs with very little organisation and knowledge of school timetables . Putting the small children in square in playground is like putting them in jail they would be better off at home mmmmm

  10. Richard Dempster

    Wasn’t Gavin Williamson sacked for lying and disclosing secrets of National security? Why would anyone in their right mind trust a word this Moron utters. Isn’t SAGE made up of political representatives as well as Scientific advisers so again who would trust this quasi group! As an x teacher of thirty years experience and parent I know it is impossible for schools to successfully have social distancing. So parents need to think long and hard about sending children back to school, quite literally it is a life and death situation.

    • Paul Fulton

      I don’t think that public schools which can include boarding from an early age foster caring and understanding of childrens needs in those that go through that system. Look at the cabinet , I wouldn’t ask any of them to childmind. Bullying, macho traits , lying , nastiness seem to be inherent and no sign of love or empathy with other human beings.

    • Mrs Romanda Niteh

      Before school should open all necessary measures should be considered ie think about the adults who looks after the children. Think about the little children who will need to be comforted when crying or needing comfort from their adults in the setting. Children can not be stopped from holding hands, playing or talking to each other. They wouldn’t understand the Word “social distance” . I think is too early to re-open schools and nursery. The virus could spread again and will be out of control and many more lives will be lost. I understand the government is concerned about the economy but lives is more important. All necessary measures should be in place before re-opening schools.

  11. Paula Pinto

    As a parent it is my duty to be very well informed about the steps being taken by government on school opening.
    It is absolutely a disgrace and utterly unacceptable that the chief scientist from DFE confirmed the decision was from the cabinet.
    Clearly the lives of our children are just numbers! The government should be liable for any deaths amongst children if they return to school.

  12. Meg Smethurst

    Not enough thought has gone into the reopening of schools. The teachers, TA’s and other staff will be under such pressure. The young children will not understand that they cannot go near their friends and year 6 will just be preparing for their transition, having completed all their work for what should have been their SATS. They cannot do their end of term entertaining and assemblies etc, no one can attend. Will the staff have the necessary PPE,
    How will lunch time work. Too much for schools to organise in such a short time. Why put so much pressure on Heads and their loyal staff when they are already under pressure caring for children of key workers. You Government leaders think carefully will you be, or would you be sending your child to school in these difficult times?

  13. Jenny, retired teacher

    Could someone tell me how the children of key workers have been in school since lockdown and the teachers who volunteered to supervise them have continued to work. How is it safe for them but not safe for groups of say 10 to 15 children going in part-time so all children have some opportunity to have lessons, see friends. Ask the volunteer teachers for guidance as to how they keep everyone safe. I agree a return to school needs to be properly planned and hygiene resources put in place. Seems the children are more keen to return than the parents, (tv interviews on morning news a few days ago).

    • Michael Crowley

      As a head of year who has been looking after those children since lockdown albeit 1 day a week I can safely say it will be near impossible to keep them safe and we’ve only had 7 students coming in. You have to constantly remind them to keep their distance.

  14. rita yaxley

    We should use common sense says the prime minister , common sense is that the eldest scholars are capable of keeping a 2 metre distance the only one who should go back part time are next years gcse children and next years a levels but only part time .

  15. John Worton

    Horrified by the announcement on Sunday.. appalled by the front page of the Mail today.
    I don’t want my youngest daughter ( a teacher) to be a hero! and I don’t want my grandchildren to be ‘guinea pigs’!

    Education is important but staying alive is better.
    No full opening of schools until safety can be guaranteed.

  16. Miss Thompson

    My personal and professional views are very different. I am a nursery manager and I have spent the whole day working with staff on a preparation plan for under 5s to return.
    I know for a fact the children will see their friends and want to hug them immediately and play socially as they once did.. They will want to hug or greet staff with hand shake or hi five they have been familiar with this.
    They will not keep social distancing rules and I doubt parents will be very pleased that they can’t settle the children into nursery the way they would have.
    I will have to make them queue outside possibly in rain and let them come in one at a time due to the space.
    This process in itself is going to be long. Wash hands, change shoes say bye in a few short minutes etc.
    To expect staff to interact with 30 parents per day.. Without ppe at the door.. Is not sitting well with staff.
    The concerns of children not fully accessing messy play in a way that is safe and hygienic, children sneeze and dribble so will be limited due careful grouping, this has to be consistent.. They don’t recognise all the time if they are going to sneeze, cough or notice if their nose is running. It takes time to get children to remember, if at all! Especially if they have a disability that affects understanding p.
    I have to send out a survey to the parents, consulting them on their thoughts for time alterations and other changes that may affect them.
    I am not convinced that it is safe for the little ones to return, I have spoken to nurses about the situation and they also think it’s too soon. Wait till September.

  17. Roger Warren

    What you describe is where we were heading before Gove swept it all away. The rise in student mental health problems since his tenure makes yesterday’s govt briefing all the more laughable and infuriating. I presume they think we’ve all forgotten about the damage Gove did.

  18. oaks said it

    I am a parent, 1 of my children has a variety of additional needs. I myself have also a variety medical conditions. Even if we were totally fine, I still wouldn’t send my children to school. The government is pushing vaccine however they have not provided a safe environment for us to develop better immune systems. So many decisions have been made ahead, of the safety of the citizens of the country. Children should not go back to school until it is absolutely safe for the children to return.