Councils call for 'higher risk' schools to be allowed to decide whether to reopen

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen

Schools should be allowed to make their own decisions about reopening – especially in areas where there is a higher proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic residents, council leaders have said.

The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling for some schools in England, in consultation with councils, to be given greater flexibility locally over reopening as they argue that some communities are at higher risk.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said getting children back to school is “vital” for their educational development and he has welcomed the efforts by many schools in England to prepare for a wider reopening.

Following a meeting between education unions, Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty, and the government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance on Friday afternoon, Mr Williamson said: “I want to reassure parents and families that we are giving schools, nurseries and other providers all the guidance and support they will need to welcome more children back in a phased way and no earlier than June 1.

“That’s why we have engaged closely with stakeholders from across the sector throughout the past seven weeks, including the trade unions, and today we arranged a detailed briefing for them with the scientific and medical experts.

“Getting children back to school is vital for their educational development and many schools are already taking steps to welcome back their pupils. I am grateful for their support.”

  • Parents discuss whether they'd allow their kids back to school

There are no plans at the moment for schools in different regions to begin their phased reopening at different times based on differing infection rates, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman has said.

“The road map that we set out does talk about the fact that we will be responsible to local infection rates and to the other data which is available and that it could lead to some of the measures being eased at different rates in different parts of the country.

“At the same time it could lead to some measures being reimposed in some parts of the country but not in the others.

“I’m not aware of any plans at the moment to do that with regards to schools,” he said.

He added: “The plans we are working on are to ensure that children can go to school safely and we wouldn’t expect any child to go back to school if we were not confident that we had put the right measures in place.”

Analysis by the Office for National Statistics has suggested that black men and women are more than four times more likely to die a coronavirus-related death than white people.

The LGA wants councils to be given more powers to close schools if testing indicates clusters of new Covid-19 cases – and it says the Government should urgently publish the scientific evidence underpinning the decision to reopen England’s schools to more pupils from June 1.

The Government has faced increasing pressure from education union leaders and MPs to release the science behind its plans to send children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 back to school from next month.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty arrives in Downing Street, in Westminster, London, as the UK entered a seventh week of lockdown. Credit: PA

Osama Rahman, chief scientific adviser at the Department for Education (DfE), said there was a “low degree of confidence” in evidence suggesting that children transmit Covid-19 less than adults.

Mr Rahman also told MPs it was not the DfE’s decision to reopen schools in England to three primary school year groups from June 1. He said it was decided by the Cabinet.

Education unions told the PA news agency they are due to attend a briefing on Friday afternoon with the Government’s scientific advisers to go through the decision to reopen schools in England.

There are no specific plans to provide PPE in schools, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman has said.

“I’ve not seen anything specific in that regard,” he said.

He added: “Safety comes first, but we also need to be aware of the potential damage to a child’s education from not getting them back in the classroom.

“We are now passed the peak of the virus and it is right we plan for the first phase for the controlled and careful return for more pupils to school.

“It is not happening overnight and it won’t happen without schools putting in place a range of measures to reduce transmission.

“Our approach has been to work with headteachers, teachers and the unions to consult with them in order to get a plan in place that allows children to go back to school safely.”

Cllr Judith Blake, chairwoman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “We know parents are anxious about sending their children back to school or nursery. Plans to reopen schools and early years settings must focus on reassuring parents that it will be safe for children to return to school.

“Publication of the scientific advice is vital to help provide that reassurance. The safety of staff, parents and families is absolutely paramount.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We agree with the LGA that publication of the scientific advice is vital to help provide reassurance to the public.”

She added: “We have concerns that a wider opening of schools, too early, poses a lot of unanswered questions about the risks in poor communities.

“The DfE has not done nearly enough thinking about the emerging evidence about the racial disparities of the epidemic and what it means for schools with diverse pupil populations.”

The schools debate came as Labour took aim at the Government’s track-and-trace plans – seen as key to allowing the UK to lift the most stringent lockdown measures – warning ministers its team of contact tracers should be close to three times the size of the operation currently being installed.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “We want children back in schools as soon as possible because being back with their teachers and friends is so important for their education and their wellbeing.

“Plans for a phased return of some year groups from 1 June, at the earliest, are based on the best scientific and medical advice. The welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making.

“We have engaged closely with the unions throughout the past seven weeks and will continue to do so, including to develop further guidance for the sector.”