Council dissent over school reopening plans grows

As many as 1,500 schools could defy government plans to reopen on 1 June amid fears over the safety of staff and pupils.

Pupils in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 could return to school on 1 June. Picture: Children's Commissioner for England
Pupils in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 could return to school on 1 June. Picture: Children's Commissioner for England

So far 18 local authorities including Liverpool City Council, Solihull, Calderdale in Yorkshire, Hartlepool in the North East and Bury in Greater Manchester have announced alternative plans for reopening after 1 June.

Solihull Council branded government plans to see pupils in nursery, reception, Year 1 and Year 6 return to classrooms on 1 June “ambitious”.

It said many schools would not be able to reopen until at least 8 June in a statement which adds: “Schools will only invite pupils back once the protective measures outlined by the government have been put in place. This means that places in schools will vary across the borough at different times. Schools will be contacting parents in the year groups mentioned in the government guidance once they have completed their risk assessments, to explain when children will be invited back into school.”

Tim Swift, leader of Calderdale Council, said five key tests laid out by the government to reopen schools had not been met in the area.

“Education plays a crucial role in making sure children have a good start in life, laying the foundations so that they are able to enjoy a long, healthy and fulfilling future.

“However the council has major concerns that the government’s tests are not currently being met within Calderdale, and for this reason we are advising our schools against opening more widely on 1 June,” he added.

Leeds City Council said the government reopening date would be “impossible” for schools to meet.

Jonathan Pryor, executive member for learning and skills, said: “Due to a variety of factors, it would be impossible for all schools to operate to the government’s timetable of opening reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from 1 June.

“While some schools will begin to gradually expand their intake from this date, Leeds will not expect all our schools to open to all those pupils from day one.”

Councils including Newcastle, Bristol and Southampton have said individual schools will decide when to reopen after carrying out risk assessments.

Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Councils have worked with all schools to keep them open throughout the coronavirus pandemic for vulnerable children and families of key workers. We know how vital it is for a child’s development to be in school, particularly for the most vulnerable children.

“Councils are keen to support their local schools to get children back as soon as possible. However, the safety of children, their families and staff will always be the top priority.

“As there are different Covid-19 infection rates around the country, schools and councils must be able to work together to decide how and when schools open to more children. Some areas may want to work faster than others.

“Councils also need crucial testing data to be shared with them, to help enable greater confidence for teachers and parents around school openings, and powers to manage outbreaks in places like schools, care homes, businesses and communities if new Covid-19 clusters emerge.”

Meanwhile, teaching unions, including the National Education Union and NASUWT-The Teachers’ union, have advised members not to return to work on 1 June. 

Jenny Coles, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services told the education select committee that schools needed a "five to six week lead-in time" to implement social distancing measures in classrooms.

However, children’s charities and children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield have called on both sides of the row to focus on vulnerable children who may be more at risk of neglect and abuse while staying at home.

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said the decision was “very difficult” and highlighted the importance of ensuring “everyone stays safe”.

He added: “Our most vulnerable children, those at risk of abuse and neglect, are trapped behind closed doors and are missing from the debate. We know teachers play a vital role in raising red flags when they see something is not right at home, but simply cannot do this when families are locked away. 

“Without these eyes and ears looking and listening out for them, children who may be at risk will be missing out on crucial help before problems spiral out of control – we must get them back to school as soon as it’s safe for them to return. Throughout the crisis, our frontline workers have been doing doorstop visits at a safe distance to give us eyes on families we know are at risk, but local authorities urgently need support in finding and helping more of these children.

"The best way to help these children who are at risk and out of sight during lockdown is for the government to support funding for councils to reach them as soon as possible through local services. And in the meantime all sides must find a way for these children to get back to school safely so teachers can play their part in protecting them.”

Longfield called on the unions, local authorities and the government to “stop squabbling” and create a safe environment for children.

She said: “We know there are thousands of vulnerable children who need to be in school. We know that the longer schools are closed the greater the impact will be on social mobility and that many children are really struggling without seeing their friends and the structure that school brings. We need to face the reality that, for a number of reasons, there are hundreds of thousands of children who can’t access meaningful education at home.

“The decision to bring back children from Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 first is sensible, as these are the year groups who need to be in school most urgently. But we should have an aspiration that all children return to school in some form before the summer and that school buildings are used for activities, summer schools and family support over the holidays. It is now up to the Government and the teaching unions to work together, along with the many teachers who are not in unions, to find solutions in the best interests of children and make this work – while doing all they can keep children and staff safe.

“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.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson met with unions last week to listen to concerns over reopening. 

On Tuesday, the government confirmed schools would not be sanctioned if they did not reopen on 1 June.

A Downing Street spokesman said its aim was to work “in a consultative way” rather than impose penalties on schools or councils.


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