Teachers union and ministers told to 'end squabbling' in reopening schools row

Ministers and teaching unions have been been urged to end ‘squabbling’ over schools reopening Credit: Tim Goode/PA

Teaching unions and ministers have been told to “stop squabbling” and work together to help reopen schools in England.

Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, said many children were struggling away from the classroom and the lack of education could impact on their future lives.

Her intervention came amid fears Boris Johnson - who wants to reopen primary schools to some year groups from June 1 - has moved to quickly to ease lockdown restrictions in England.

There are concerns that another weekend of nice weather that a relaxation of the rules will bring an influx of visitors to different parts of the country and help the spread of the disease.

A meeting between teaching unions and Government scientific advisers intended to reassure staff that returning to the classroom would be safe ended inconclusively.

The union representatives said they had been left with more questions than answers, with one union leader describing the scientific evidence as “flimsy at best”.

Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said members are willing to work with the Government to help reopen schools.

He said teachers needed clear evidence schools would be “Covid secure” and would not pose a risk to public health.

“There is need for Government with trade unions to be working together to establish clear guidance for schools – unequivocal guidance for schools – that they need to follow to ensure there are strong controls in place that will satisfy not only teachers but also parents and families,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Schools have been closed meaning pupils have been working from home. Credit: PA

A number of council in England have voiced their opposition to the reopening of schools. Gateshead council leader described the move to bring pupils back to school as "madness" while others have vowed to defy central Government if schools are told to reopen.

Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon said on Friday that his council’s advice continued to be to “stay at home”. He said his views on the lockdown were echoed by his counterparts in Newcastle and Sunderland.

Mr Gannon told the BBC: “The national advice telling us the lockdown is over is frankly madness to Gateshead.”

Among the councils who are said to have concerns about reopening schools include:

  • Liverpool

  • Gateshead

  • Hartlepool

  • Newcastle

  • Sunderland

Teachers have been backed by the doctors’ union – the British Medical Association – which said schools should not reopen until the numbers of coronavirus cases were “much lower”.

However, Ms Longfield insisted the decision by ministers to start bringing back primary pupils was “sensible” and said there should be an “aspiration” to get all children back in school before the summer.

She pointed to data suggesting NHS nurseries that have remained open during the lockdown had not suffered coronavirus outbreaks as evidence it could be done safely.

“All sides need to show a greater will to work together in the interests of children,” she said.

“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.”

Teachers and ministers have been engaged in a dispute about whether schools should reopen. Credit: PA

Concerns about the easing of lockdown restrictions were raised again after the R rate - which measures the transmission rate of the disease - creeped up again in England.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said the latest data suggested R in England was between 0.7 and 1.0 – compared to a previous estimate of 0.5 to 0.9.

If the R rate is greater than one, it means there is a serious risk of the disease spreading at greater risk as for every person with the disease, they are passing it on to more than one person.

For the rate of infection to fall, R must be below 1. If the R rate is 0.5 and there are 10 people infected with the disease, 5 people are infected from them. At this rate, the number of people infected would continue to dwindle.

Speaking at the daily No 10 press conference, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there was a lag in the figures and that they were confident it remained below one.

There are concerns the R rate could rise if schools are reopened too early. Credit: PA

The latest rise in R is thought to be driven by the virus spreading in care homes and hospitals rather than the wider community.

However, some civic leaders in northern England, including Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, have voiced concerns it is still spreading more quickly in their areas and it was too soon for any easing.

In Liverpool, the city council confirmed that it would continue to allow only the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils to attend school from June 1.

The deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr Jenny Harries, insisted the risks were low with just two or three out of 1,000 of the population currently thought to be infected.

“There’s a lot of anxiety I think around this but people need to think through – in an average infant school with 100 children the likelihood of anybody having this disease is very small and diminishing with time,” she said.

The lockdown restrictions have not been lifted to the same extent in the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But with the RAC estimating that 15 million leisure trips will be made by car in England this weekend, ministers said it was essential people continued to maintain social distancing.

Mr Hancock said: “This weekend, with the good weather and the new rules, I hope people can enjoy being outside, but please, stick with the rules, keep an eye on your family and don’t take risks.”

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