Ministers chose not to follow scientists’ advice on reopening schools on a rota basis as full-time education was “more effective” to get parents back to work.
Schools minister Nick Gibb, speaking at the education select committee today, also admitted the government had made a U-turn on plans not to fund free school meal vouchers over May half-term.
Here’s what we learned.
1. Scientists’ rota recommendation snubbed so parents can get back to work…
The schools minister said that, as well as the science, they wanted to “make sure children have the best approach to education and it’s better to have full time education consistently”.
“And also another important factor in schools reopening for more children was whether their parents can return to work and it’s more effective for that objective for children to be at school full time and not to be involved in the rota.”
2. … but government considering rotas to get all primary pupils back
Gibb was told primary schools are already predicting they will struggle to bring back all pupils in reception, year 1 and 6 from June 1, and asked how the government intends to meet its ambition for all primary pupils to go back before summer.
Gibb said: “Those are the issues we are addressing: how do you maintain social distancing while also bringing back later groups?
“We are looking at all the different options, for example rotas… that is one of many possibilities of how we bring back more children while maintaining social distancing.”
3. Two-in-five schools don’t have enough PPE
The schools minister said he understands that 60 per cent of schools have enough personal protective equipment (although he didn’t explain where these stats had come from).
He reiterated government guidance that states school staff don’t need PPE for day-to-day activities, but he admitted schools do need a “small quantity”.
That is to cover occasions the government does believe staff should wear PPE, such as where they are looking after a child who tests positive for coronavirus.
But Labour MP Ian Mearns said the current advice for schools “echoes what was told to care home two months ago, which which has had to change”.
Gibb said he could “only give you the advice we have”, admitting PPE is a “scarce resource”.
4. DfE WILL fund free school meal vouchers over half-term
Gibb described the widespread problems to the national free school meal voucher system as a “bumpy start”, but said over £100 million of vouchers have now been redeemed.
He also claimed that children’s minister Vicky Ford has said “the cost of the voucher scheme will continue to be met by the DfE over half term”.
That marks another U-turn from the department, which had insisted they had “no plans” to cover vouchers over the May half-term (despite doing so for the Easter holidays).
However, the announcement coming mid-way through the holiday is likely to mean parents will miss out on getting the vouchers, which are normally ordered weeks in advance.
Schools Week had previously revealed that the current Edenred national system has no way to stop schools ordering vouchers over holidays.
5. Clinically vulnerable staff ‘safe’ to return to school
Gibb said for staff who are clinically vulnerable (those at ‘moderate risk’ from coronavirus, such as pregnant women or people older than 70), schools are “safe, providing the school is doing everything it can to ensure social distancing”.
When prompted whether schools can require these staff to attend, Gibb suggested this would be the case, “provided the school is able to ensure there’s social distancing at the school”.
This doesn’t seem to match with the government guidance, though, which states clinically vulnerable should “work from home where possible”.
It then adds: “Education and childcare settings should endeavour to support this, for example by asking staff to support remote education, carry out lesson planning or other roles which can be done from home.”
If they can’t work from home, the guidance states staff “should be offered the safest available on-site roles, staying 2 metres away from others wherever possible, although the individual may choose to take on a role that does not allow for this distance if they prefer to do so.”
6. Announcement due for ‘summer catch-up package’
Gibb said they are talking to the sector and education charities with a view to “coming forward with a package for catch-up over the summer”.
However he said he had to be “coy with the details” as officials are still having discussions, but they “will be able to say something fairly soon”.
He acknowledged the department will have to “use volunteers and trainee teachers to make sure everybody can help”. Schools Week revealed earlier this month how four charities were in talks with ministers about a pilot scheme that could see one-to-one tuition delivered to thousands of pupils across England in an attempt to close the disadvantage gap.
7. ‘GCSEs will be the judge of online learning quality’
Asked about online learning attendance rates and accountability, Gibb said they have an “inspection and accountability regime that exists but we don’t want it to provide more burdens for schools in this period”.
He added: “Ultimately of course there will be inspections of schools, ultimately there will be SATs and ultimately there will be GCSEs that will judge the quality of the education that has been provided in this period and head teachers of schools are aware of that. And that’s how our system works whether we are in a crisis or we are not in crisis.”
Gibb said that in his experience an “overwhelming majority of schools are providing very high quality provision for their young people”.
He said they are helping schools with guidance on how to provide education at home and free technical advice, but said “education will never be as good as it is when children are in a classroom with their teacher”
8. DfE hasn’t spoken to insurers over potential covid-19 risks
David Simmonds MP said a “critical issue” for local authorities and MATs was whether their insurance company will cover them in the event of a coronavirus outbreak. He cited examples in the private school sector where they want to reopen but “they can’t because their insurers are not willing to stand behind them”.
But Andrew McCully, the DfE’s director general for early years and school groups, said they “haven’t had direct discussions with insurers on this”.
He said “most” insurance arrangements are linked back to the risk assessments, “so provided that risk assessment is done, and all schools will be doing that using the guidance that the department has provided, then my assumption is that will be linked back into insurance.”
However he agreed to take forward Simmond’s suggestion to speak to insurers.