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PLANS for all primary school children to return before summer were abandoned by the government today in a victory for teachers warning against the risk to public safety.
The government had aimed to bring all pupils in England back four weeks before the end of term, despite some schools warning that they were already short of space due to the socially distanced reopening for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils, and could not accommodate more children.
Teachers and teaching unions have been at loggerheads with the government over the full reopening of schools, warning that many were in no position to implement social distancing and the policy could spark a “second spike” in Covid-19 cases.
National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said it had taken the government “some time to recognise what was obvious to most.”
And, while Labour’s shadow education secretary Rebecca Long Bailey welcomed the U-turn, she expressed her “deep dismay” over the government’s handling of the plans.
Ms Long Bailey told the Commons: “For weeks, headteachers, education unions, school staff and many parents have warned that the plans to open whole primary schools before the summer were simply impractical while implementing social distancing safely.
“If the government had brought together everyone involved in implementing these plans from the outset and really taken on board what they had to say, it would not be in the situation of having to roll back at all.”
NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach agreed that it was “abundantly clear for some time” that the government’s plans were “ill-considered, premature and unworkable.”
He said that the rush to seek to reopen schools as part of “wider efforts to restart the economy has been in the face of deep concerns and mounting evidence that this would contribute to a second wave of infections and deaths from the coronavirus.”
NASUWT is urging the government to “act swiftly” to address the concerns of teachers and headteachers struggling to maintain safe working practices in schools where provision for children has already been extended.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) general secretary Geoff Barton said he was not surprised the plans had been dropped as the government has been “over-promising something that wasn’t deliverable.”
Ms Bousted said a national plan was needed — similar to the one being developed by the Scottish government.
She said the plan should cover all possible scenarios and focus on blended learning at home and school, increased support for disadvantaged children such as free internet access, and the requisitioning of local spaces like libraries.
Pupils in Scotland will return on August 11 but they will spend around half their time in school and the other half at home.
And in Wales, the government plans to reopen all schools on June 29, with a third of children at most in school at any time.
“Pupils in years 10 and 12 are facing an uncertain future,” Ms Bousted said. “They have lost a considerable amount of teaching time in school.”
She recognised that “the scale of the challenge was immense.”
Ms Bousted also called on the government to work with Ofqual to redesign GCSE and A-level qualifications so that they were fair for all pupils — including those without access to computers at home.
Downing Street said secondary schools were expected to open to “more pupils” in England from September.
Just 52 per cent of primary schools in England reopened to more children last week, figures from the Department for Education revealed today.
About 11 per cent of all nursery and primary school pupils attended education settings on Thursday – the first week that schools in England began admitting more children.
NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said the figures revealed the “very long way” the government had to go to convince parents and teachers that a wider opening was safe.
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