UK

Teaching unions blasted for trying to dictate restart

TEACHING unions cannot be allowed to “dictate” when children go back to school following the coronavirus classroom shutdown, the Education Secretary said yesterday. Gavin Williamson promised that the “unprecedented disruption” to youngsters learning must end this September with all children returning to full-time classes.

He unveiled detailed Government guidance for schools in England to safely reopen including advice to stagger starting times and breaks, minimise congestion in schools corridors and grouping children into “bubbles” to cut down their interaction with each other. And he urged unions who have been resisting the return to full-time education on safety grounds to cooperate with the Government on getting children back to school to help the “national recovery”.

“This should not be about trade unions dictating what we are doing that is best for our children.

“We want to work with trade unions and the whole sector, including staff, to deliver the best education for all children. We will continue to have that dialogue,” the Education Secretary told MPs.

In a Commons statement confirming the September restart for schools that have been closed to most pupils since the lockdown began in March, Mr Williamson said: “Every child and young person in the country has experienced unprecedented disruption to their learning as a result of coronavirus, with those from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds among the hardest hit.

“Education recovery is critical for this generation of schoolchildren. Returning to normal educational routines as quickly as possible is critical to our national recovery, too.

“That is why we have been working to ensure that all pupils will be able to go back to schools and colleges full time in September, with covid-secure measures in place, so that they have the opportunity to thrive and fulfil their full potential.”

Advice from the Department for Education published yesterday outlined stringent measures for curbing the spread of coronavirus in schools.

Entire schools, or all pupils in a year group, may have to self-isolate at home if schools have two or more confirmed coronavirus cases within a fortnight, the advice said.

It called for children to be grouped into “bubbles” to reduce social interaction, with as little sharing of rooms between different groups as possible.

Youngsters should be sat facing forwards in classes and teachers should maintain the two-metre distance where possible

Start and finish times as well as breaks should be staggered to avoid crowded corridors, playgrounds and other areas.

At a news conference in Downing Street to highlight the back-to-school plans last night, Mr Williamson rejected claims that children will need to be taught a “watered-down curriculum” when they return.

“It is going to be a full and total curriculum that is going to be delivered for our children across all subjects.

“It’s incredibly important that we have the same standards and rigour across our education system as we come out of lockdown as we had going into it.

“We are not going to be in a situation where we see vital subjects cut out of children’s education.

“So, the idea that there will be a watered-down curriculum is totally, totally untrue.”

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said lessons could be held outside in order to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.

She told the conference: “I’m very sure that from conversations that I’ve had from some of the teachers working with Department for Education that teaching site providers are finding very innovative ways to manage that particularly for example in the summer.

“You can have a group of children in a lesson outside and that reduces your risks instantly.”

Dr Harries also urged parents to “control their teenagers” outside school to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“School is quite a controlled environment and perhaps trying to encourage families as well – I know it is difficult because I’ve been there – but to try and control their teenagers in their social interactions outside of school as well,” she said.

A headteachers’ union yesterday warned that it will be “enormously challenging” for schools to keep children apart in year-group-sized “bubbles”.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school, including whole year groups comprising hundreds of pupils, is mind-boggling.

“School leaders will have to consider implementing staggered starts, finishes and lunchtimes, alongside transport to and from school, on an epic scale.”

He added: “However, we recognise that the options about how to bring all children back to school in the autumn are limited.”

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added: “The situation seen in Leicester this week has demonstrated that this crisis is far from over, and there will be further disruption ahead.

“It is therefore essential that Government continues to monitor the data when it comes to school return and that it also has a credible Plan B in place should it be required.”

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