Gavin Williamson has claimed the reopening of schools is under control, despite a spate of closures prompted by Covid-19 cases.
The education secretary told MPs today he was “very” confident that the situation was under control, and insisted schools that follow government guidance will “create an inherently safer environment for all to operate”.
It follows reports that schools have had to send groups of pupils home and in some cases close altogether after identifying cases in pupils or staff following the start of the new term.
It was revealed yesterday that more than 60 UK schools had reported coronavirus cases, with further reports made today. One of the schools with a case is Castle Rock School in Coalville, where just two weeks ago, prime minister Boris Johnson told pupils they should not be nervous about coronavirus.
In Liverpool, as many as 200 pupils are now self-isolating following positive cases at eight city schools.
Asked by Labour MP Matt Western during today’s Commons education questions if he was “confident the government really has this under control”, Williamson said: “Very much so.”
“Our guidance is clear that if schools implement the actions set out in our system of controls in our guidance they will effectively reduce risks in their schools and create an inherently safer environment for all to operate,” he added.
The government is also facing a growing backlash over its decision not to reimburse schools for the costs of cleaning and other preventative measures designed to keep children and staff safe.
Schools Week revealed in June that leaders had been told the exceptional costs fund would only cover cleaning associated with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases, not action taken to make schools safer ahead of wider reopening.
This afternoon, Labour MP Chi Onwurah said teachers had spent the summer “working incredibly hard to make [schools] Covid-secure whilst dealing with the exams debacle”.
“Sacred Heart in my constituency tell me they’ve had to alter their classrooms, they’ve bought visors and face masks and sanitisers,” she said. “They’ve had to increase cleaning rotas and produce online video guidance for every year group at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds following years of budget cuts. So the minister can’t give them their summer back, but he can give them their money back. Will he do so?”
But Gibb pointed out that core schools funding has risen by £2.6 billion this year, and that schools “do have an overall £4 billion worth of cumulative reserves and we expect those to be used first”.
Margaret Greenwood, the shadow schools minister, said his response was “disappointing”, adding that headteachers were “very concerned about the extra costs that schools are facing in relation to Covid-19”.
“Hand sanitiser, signage, barriers, cleaning and the support and teaching staff that they may need to cover Covid-related absences. So what steps will the government take to ensure that all schools can be reimbursed for Covid-related costs, and what would he say to those headteachers who are now openly saying that they are having to weigh up pupil safety against financial stability.”