Gordon Leff obituary

My friend Gordon Leff, who has died aged 93, was a historian whose writing on medievalism covered an extraordinary range, beginning with his first book in 1958, Medieval Thought: St Augustine to Ockham. Many more works followed, including  a series of monographs on 14th-century thinkers, Bradwardine (1957), Richard FitzRalph (1961), Gregory of Rimini (1963) and William of Ockham (1975), and then a look at heterodox thinkers in Heresy in the Later Middle Ages (1967), followed by The Dissolution of the Medieval Outlook (1976).

Born in London, to Solomon Leff, a food broker, and his wife, Eva (nee Gordon), “Bunny” – as he was known throughout his life – went to Summerhill school in Suffolk shortly before the second world war and, towards the end of the war when he was called up, became a quartermaster in the artillery in India (1945-46). He then studied history at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was a fellow from 1955 onwards), and his first job was lecturing in the history department at Manchester University (1956-65).

He moved to the new University of York in 1965 and bought a cottage outside York, in Strensall, which is where I first met him, after motorbiking up from Oxford to see him for postgraduate supervisions. He spent the rest of his career at York’s history department, first as a reader (1965-69) and then as a professor. When he retired in 1988 he was made an emeritus professor.

Bunny was exceptionally economical with his time: for his undergraduate lectures he would start saying his first sentence as he walked through the doorway into the lecture room, and his last as he walked towards the door to depart. He would mark exam scripts while watching the cricket at Headingley, simultaneously keeping his eye on play, and in a history department meeting he would sit in a corner by a bin, ripping through the accumulated post of several weeks or reading a book he had been sent to review – occasionally to be heard snorting with laughter at some piece of committee jargon.

Back in 1983, Bunny had been invited by Oxford University to deliver an annual series of six lectures on the history of political thought, known as the Carlyle lectures. The deliverer of the lectures is expected to hand over polished versions to Oxford’s Clarendon Press, and they usually make up a slim volume published a year or two later. Bunny instead embarked upon embellishing his lectures with further study, going back to Augustine and Plato; it was a scheme of extraordinary ambition that took him many years, and I feared he was in a logjam. However, at the age of 86 and 29 years after having delivered the lectures, he finally handed them over in four volumes of more than 1,000 pages in total. Impatient at editorial delay, he then self-published.

Bunny’s private pleasures were music, cricket and, later in life, the company of his grandchildren. He married Kate Fox in 1953; they were divorced in 1980. He is survived by their son, Gregory, and three grandchildren, Cameron, Rory and Cerys.

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My gig work as a professor is more precarious than ever in this pandemic

One of the most grueling college semesters I’ve ever taught ended on 6 May. The following morning, I woke to nine emails from former students asking for help. Four requested letters of recommendation; two asked for comments on graduate school applications; one wanted advice about what to do now that the summer internship I’d recommended her for had been cancelled; another hoped I could suggest ways to make a 10-page essay on the concept of Enlightenment in modern German philosophy stronger; and the last wanted me to “quickly” read a 12,000-word dissertation chapter before he submitted it to his adviser that afternoon. 

Despite my guilt, I told them all, “No.” My first priority was to fill my two kids with waffles, then log them in to their respective online learning platforms. My second was to file an unemployment claim, so I could pay household bills over the summer (I live in Boulder, where the cost of living is not cheap). Not one of these students seemed to realize that I am nothing but a gig worker for their university and my gig is now up – perhaps permanently. 

Like most of the 1.3 million college faculty members employed off the tenure-track, I work on a contingent basis: I only have a job when the university needs me.

Some semesters, I teach a full four-course load, which means I can cover my monthly bills. Other semesters, I’m asked to teach just three courses and my guaranteed income for five months of the year consistently falls $200 short of meeting my family’s needs. With the future of college education unsettled by the coronavirus, my family’s normally insecure finances have become even more precarious. Yet, in recent weeks, students have asked me to do more work for them than ever, with no consideration for the fact that I’m not paid for the services they expect me to provide.

Of course, this is not their fault. Most college students (and most parents of college students) have no idea that a full 75% of college instructors nowadays are non-tenured or adjunct faculty. Rarely do our contracts last for more than an academic year and, as I know from personal experience, we often earn as much to teach a course as just one of our students pays to attend. But because most of us can legitimately request to be addressed by the title “Doctor”, students assume we earn generous salaries, have cushy benefit plans, and get every summer off. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. On average, adjuncts are paid just under $3,000 per course, and they teach 14 courses per year. Like the seamstresses who once worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, contingent faculty are pieceworkers: we’re paid a fixed rate for each course we teach, no matter how much time or work we put into it. The hours we might spend designing course curricula, grading student assignments, or recording video lectures are not figured into our compensation. Nor is the time many of us give to writing letters of recommendation and advising students on potential graduate programs or internships. 

While almost everyone forced to shift from in-person to virtual college instruction this spring has spent at least one groggy morning recording video lectures before sunrise, and most of us have also devoted several hours to devising alternative assignments and schedules to meet the Covid-19-related needs of vulnerable students, some in the tenure stream are likely to have been compensated for this extra work. The rest of us have not. 

You may be asking yourself: if being contingent faculty is so awful, why are more than a million people willing to accept the job? Most of us didn’t expect to become stuck on the tenure-less track. I know I didn’t. I have an Ivy League PhD and publish regularly in the top journals in my field (cultural anthropology). But when my degree was new and I was most hirable, the Great Recession was at its peak and the tenure track job market almost nonexistent. My chances of securing one of the very few positions available practically vanished when I showed up to campus interviews either pregnant or with a breast pump in hand. So, I accepted a series of temporary postdoctoral fellowships and “visiting” teaching positions before landing one at a university in a city I love. 

Now that my children are older and my PhD no longer shiny and new, I’m unwilling to accept the slightly better paid and more stable “term” teaching positions I’d previously used to get by. My kids refuse to relocate to a place where my contract won’t give us time to plant roots. And after being in the same location for a few years, we’ve built a secure enough system of aid and social support, it would be scary to trade a bit more money for what could actually amount to less security. 

Each year, I resolve will be my last in higher education. But then I come close enough to landing a coveted tenure track position, I decide to stay on just one more year to give the academic job market a final go. 

With college enrollments down for the 2020 school year and many universities debating whether or not to open in the fall, there may not be an academic job market next year. The pandemic has made me fully aware of how precarious academic gig work is, and how little it is valued.

Contingent faculty cannot afford to keep giving students more than our universities pay us for. 

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Michael Bloomberg donates £1m to fund online UK summer schools

Michael Bloomberg, the US billionaire, is to donate more than £1m to fund a replacement for residential university summer schools for British disadvantaged pupils, the Sutton Trust has announced.

Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York and presidential candidate, said the new online platform to be called Sutton Trust is intended to help the sixth-formers who would have been eligible for a place on the trust’s face-to-face programmes cancelled because of coronavirus.

“The coronavirus crisis has presented a whole new set of challenges for students from low-income families, interrupting the school year and cutting off access to resources that help students stay on track – like university application guidance,” Bloomberg said.

Oxford Brookes doing worse than University of Oxford on state school admissions

“Bloomberg Philanthropies has helped more than 70,000 talented low and middle-income students apply to and enrol in top colleges in the US through our virtual advising programme, and we’re glad to support the work that Sutton Trust online is leading in the UK.

“A parent’s income should never determine a child’s likelihood of going to university – and with the coronavirus taking a devastating financial toll on families, and casting so much uncertainty into young people’s lives, this work is more important and more urgent than ever before.”

The trust said the funding would create online content for students, and a platform for the sixth-formers to receive advice and teaching from the programme’s higher education partners, including Imperial College London and the University of St Andrews.

The trust said its residential and face-to-face summer programmes can only reach about 2,000 students each year, while around 6,000 eligible sixth-formers apply. “The new platform and the Bloomberg funding over three years means the 4,000 who currently don’t get any provision will now get support,” a spokesperson for the trust said.

The students come from across the UK and have met social mobility criteria, such as eligibility for free school meals or were attending a school with a low progression rate to higher education.

Sir Peter Lampl, the trust’s chair and founder, said he was confident that the new platform will be a good substitute for its traditional summer schools.

“Our research has shown that the coronavirus has had a major impact on young people and will have a profound effect on their futures. High quality support is needed more than ever. But with face-to-face programmes unable to go ahead, there is a serious gap,” Lampl said.

The new platform will include features of the trust’s summer schools, including academic content, guidance on applications and student finance, as well as an insight into university life.

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Not safe to reopen all schools next week, Independent Sage warns

It is not safe to start reopening all schools next week, a group of independent scientists has warned.

The committee accused the government of not listening to its own scientific advice as it pushes for certain classes to go back to school on 1 June.

In a new report, the Independent Sage group said the proposals risk “a new surge of cases of Covid-19 in some communities”.

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The government’s scientific advisory committee, Sage, has modelled the impact of seven different ways schools could reopen, which all result in the ‘R’ rate – or the rate of transmission – increasing, the group said.

“The school reopening scenario chosen by the government is not one of those modelled by Sage making the potential impact of reopening even more uncertain,” the Independent Sage report said. “Robust testing systems are not in place everywhere.”

The committee of independent scientists added: “Additionally, public adherence to social distancing is influenced by trust in the government and its messaging. This trust is increasingly strained.

“We therefore believe that by going ahead with a general school reopening from 1 June, the government is not following the advice of its Sage group.”

Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser, set up Independent Sage to look at how the UK could work its way out of coronavirus lockdown after the official Sage faced criticism over an alleged lack of transparency.

He claimed the new board was necessary because he feared experts were deferring to ministers.

Speaking about the plans to reopen schools on 1 June, Sir David said: “Whilst we totally understand the imperative to get the nation’s children back in the classroom as soon as it is safe to do so, the evidence clearly shows that the government has jumped the gun here.”

He added: “Crucially we conclude that the best way forward cannot be one size fits all, it requires localised case by case responses to ensure that the risk of flair ups is kept to a minimum.”

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Boris Johnson’s plans to ease the lockdown will be confirmed on Thursday in an official review that Downing Street expects will give the all-clear for schools to welcome back more students on 1 June – although this plan could change depending on further scientific advice.

The UK prime minister has said it is his “intention” for schools to begin resuming with Reception, Years 1 and Year 6 classes from Monday.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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Thousands of A-level students could lose their unconditional university offers

Thousands of A-level students could have their unconditional university offers withdrawn this summer, as ministers and the higher education regulator try to crack down on panic offers made during the pandemic.

Sources at Westminster say the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, is determined to constrain universities, after private government data showed that 30,000 offers that had been dependent on A-level grades were suddenly switched to “unconditional” when the pandemic struck in March.

The competition to recruit UK students will be more important than ever this summer, as universities brace for the loss of thousands of international students, who generally pay higher fees. Some institutions are expecting to lose £100m in fees.

Now the regulator, the Office for Students, is seeking sweeping temporary powers to control universities’ admissions, including the ability to force institutions to retract offers it disapproves of. As well as new unconditional offers, experts say this could include making universities withdraw offers accepting low grades that they made to fill places.

Forget freshers’ week: universities prepare to teach new first years online

The Guardian has learned that several universities, including one in the elite Russell Group, have sought legal advice on how to challenge the OfS move, which they see as a dangerous encroachment on their autonomy.

Ministers are concerned that school leavers might accept an unconditional offer from a university other than their chosen institution because they want certainty. They are also worried that if some universities change offers to gain an advantage, their competitors will be forced to follow suit, leading to a domino effect with lots of universities ignoring A-level grades.

A Westminster source said: “There were some universities where every single one of their offers were converted to unconditional overnight in response to the pandemic.”

Controversially, the OfS expects institutions that suddenly handed out large numbers of unconditional offers after 11 March, the date the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a pandemic, to withdraw those offers from students who haven’t yet accepted them. If universities don’t comply, the regulator intends to levy high fines.

The OfS has been advising universities that where unconditional offers are part of “usual practice”, including creative arts courses where candidates are interviewed and submit a portfolio, which is as important as predicted grades, students do not need to worry that their place might be withdrawn.

The government has requested the new powers in return for its financial support package for the sector. But universities say the wording of the proposed new OfS powers, which are currently being consulted on, is so imprecise that they do not know which offers might fall foul of the rules.

Dr Dean Machin, strategic policy adviser at the University of Portsmouth, says: “We’ve got enough uncertainty to be coping with right now without coming to terms with a vague new power. We don’t know what will be acceptable. It increases uncertainty at a time when that is the last thing we need.”

He says Portsmouth did not switch any offers, but a minority of other institutions saw the financial risks ahead and decided to act quickly. He adds that the sector generally saw this as bad practice, because by siphoning off students at a time of crisis they could potentially sink their competitors.

Smita Jamdar, head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, who has been advising universities on the new OfS powers, says institutions should be extremely cautious about withdrawing any offers, which could lead to accusations of having misled students. “Students may feel they are having something valuable taken away from them. Institutions need to think carefully about the legal rights of the students and the reputational impact of it all.”

Jamdar is concerned that the OfS has not defined which sorts of offers it wants to stamp out. She says universities could, for example, be challenged for accepting students with lower grades.

She is also unhappy with the OfS plan to backdate the new rules to March. “It’s an important principle of the law that you should know the consequences of your actions at the time you do them,” she says.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, agrees it is not clear exactly which behaviour the OfS intends to punish. “In clearing every year there are universities that pretty much accept anyone they think would benefit. So if you usually take students with low grades in a normal year, are you going to fall foul of the OfS for doing it this year?”

He is concerned that universities are being hit with new rules at a time many are expecting A-level grades to be less trustworthy. “If you are an admissions officer trying to fill your places and make rapid decisions it is really hard,” he says.

Andrew Hargreaves, founder of the research consultancy dataHE, which has been helping universities to understand their position in the absence of A-level exams, says: “I just don’t recognise this narrative that is coming from government about universities as villains, with the OfS coming along on its white charger to rescue young people. This is a sector trying to react to a changed environment, that genuinely wants its students to succeed.” Many in the sector argue that there is no real evidence that unconditional offers are hurting students.

Loss of international student fees could decimate UK research

Vice-chancellors are also concerned that the government is seeking to control far more than admissions. The consultation sets out proposals to prevent universities “engaging in any form of conduct” that could have a negative impact on students or the “stability or integrity” of the higher education system. It emphasises that this “includes but is not limited to” admissions. University chiefs say any number of issues the government doesn’t like could fall into this definition.

Jamdar says this is “apparent opportunism. The sector has asked for support and the government has seen it as the chance not only to ensure stability in recruitment, but also to establish a basis to intervene in a much broader and quite onerous way. I feel deeply uncomfortable about it.”

Prof David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, agrees. “This is a time of crisis, but we are still in a democracy. These powers are deliberately intended to circumvent the Higher Education Act of 2017, which enshrined universities’ autonomy in law.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting our world-class universities and students through this challenging time. Prospective students will understandably feel nervous about their future, and their interests must be put first. We do not want students to be pressured into a major life decision which might not be right for them.

“The range of measures we announced, including student number controls, aim to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sector.”

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No school: ‘He’s not getting up till one o’clock’

“I’m worried about a lack of motivation – he’s not getting up until one o’clock.”

Many parents across the UK will empathise with mother-of three Louise, who is worried her teenage son is becoming disengaged from his studies, as schools remain closed due to Covid-19.

“It’s hard enough motivating a lazy 17-year-old boy who doesn’t really care much about school in normal times,” says Louise.

When schools were closed two weeks before the Easter holidays, few parents were expecting the home school scenario to go on for more than a few weeks.

While there is a possibility that some, if not all, primary school year groups in England may go back before the long summer holidays, this is unlikely to be the case in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

And it’s becoming clear that secondary schools (apart from “some face-to-face contact” with teachers for Year 10 and 12 pupils in England) will remain shut until September or even later – but nobody really knows.

Louise, who did not want us to use her full name, says she’s worried that not being in school for such a long time will mean some pupils lose interest and give up.

“These children, they’re losing any motivation, so when they do go back to school, I don’t think they’re really going to care.

“They need the interaction with the teacher, a bit more more than, ‘Here’s a worksheet’.

“I’m worried my son’s not going to bother doing any work now before his A-levels next year and frankly, he’s having a nice time, he’s exercising lots, playing video games, so why would he start working again?”

“It’s very difficult for parents to get their children to knuckle down sometimes,” says Rebecca Poole, head teacher of Hampton High in south-west London.

“But it’s important not to panic. I would say that if it’s creating unbearable conflict at home, don’t force it.

“As teachers, we will do our best to repair the damage to learning, the important thing is children’s wellbeing and safety.

“Families should hear that, they shouldn’t tie themselves in knots – we’re in this for a long schlep.”

Carl Ward, head teacher of Haywood Academy in Stoke-on-Trent, says parents should never feel reluctant to contact the school if learning at home is not going well.

“My number one piece of advice would be to contact the school, speak to the staff and then students’ needs can be looked at.

“Invoke your right as a parent and ask the school for more work, less work, better work or advice – they’re there to help you.”

He also says schools are sharing best practice and are working hard to improve the online delivery of lessons.

‘Back with their friends’

But it’s not just the educational side of schools being closed that is having an impact on children and young people, the social side of growing up is also curtailed.

Mother-of-four Trish Jones told the BBC that her three secondary-school-age children are keen to get back to school and see their friends.

“They thought there was a glimmer of hope they’d go back to school before the summer, but when they realised that that wasn’t going to be happening, they were gutted, really gutted.

“For them it was the chance to be back with their friends, back to the usual routine in the company of their friends.”

Trish also worries that teenagers aren’t getting the freedom and privacy they need to develop their independence.

“It’s unbelievable really that we’ve got all these teenagers stuck at home.”

Louise says her 17-year-old is losing out on the positive aspects of mingling with his peers.

“He’s decided that he doesn’t want to go to university, which may have happened anyway, but I think if he was at school surrounded by his peers, who are clever boys, he’d be pulled along by them.

“But because he’s isolated at home, he’s not getting his peer influence – he’s got clever, motivated friends who’re a good influence, but now he’s not seeing them.”

Prof Chris Boyle, educational psychologist at Exeter University’s Graduate School of Education, says all is not lost because young people are highly connected online.

“They’re not totally disconnected because they’re continually connected online, so it might strengthen their friendships because they can interact in a different way.”

Prof Boyle suggests children and young people try to “enjoy the space” that school closures bring and use it as a period of reflection.

“We could consider this as an opportunity for teenagers to reflect where they’re at – with their friends, where they’re going in life, what they want from life, what their priorities are.

“There is hope, there’s potential for society to reset itself, for example, in terms of the environment, in terms of looking out for our neighbours.”

Head teacher Carl Ward, who’s been a teacher for 27 years, says it’s important never to underestimate the ability of children and young people to recover from difficulties.

“I’m always astounded by children’s ability to bounce back,” he says.

“The quicker we can get them back into the normal swing of things, the better, but it’s not the end of the world that they’ve lost some time.

“They’ll be guided and pushed by teachers when they’re back in school to make up for that lost time.”

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Is it safe to go back to school in England? The scientific advice so far

Michael Gove says it is safe for children to return to school – so what is the scientific guidance?

The Department for Education recently released an overview of advice it received from Public Health England, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and its subgroup the Children’s Task and Finish Working Group – although specific evidence from these latter groups has yet to be published.

The new report points out that in general children with Covid-19 have a far milder form of the disease than adults and that, at least for children up to the age of 13, they are far less likely to show symptoms. It also notes there is some, albeit very limited evidence, that such children are less likely to become infected than adults, but it is unclear whether they transmit the virus less than adults.

The report also acknowledges other countries: many in Europe have begun reopening schools with few problems, at least so far. Indeed the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, has previously highlighted the lack of negative impacts in Denmark, where schools reopened in mid-April.

However, experts found the “R” number – the effective reproduction number – did nudge upwards towards 1 in the first two weeks of reopening in Denmark before falling once again, while some have said that comparisons with Denmark are problematic, with Denmark having had far fewer deaths (under 550 at the time of writing).

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said that another consideration is that there have been few recorded cases of adults catching the disease from children, while there have been no outbreaks in schools around the world – although that could be down to children showing few symptoms. But, he said, teachers may be at risk from other teachers – as is the case between workers in other jobs.

When will UK schools reopen – and how will they keep children safe?

What measures will schools introduce?

The new report notes it is very difficult for young children to stay 2 metres apart, but says measures such as hand washing and emphasising the need to use and bin tissues are important.

Frequent cleaning of surfaces, using staggered break times and changing classroom layouts could be used – although each school is asked to carry out its own risk assessment before opening.

Face masks or coverings, however, are not recommended, with the report noting that children and staff in schools will only mix in small and consistent groups. Teachers will not be expected to use personal protective equipment (PPE) unless that is already used, or a child develops symptoms of Covid-19 and contact is necessary while they are cared for before returning home.

What about testing?

The Department for Education has said that all schoolchildren, staff and members of their households will be able to have a test for Covid-19 – if they show symptoms. If children or staff test positive, all those they mix with in the school will have to self-isolate for 14 days. However as the report itself notes, many children have very mild symptoms or none at all.

Are all schoolchildren returning at once?

No. As Boris Johnson outlined in his address on 10 May, the plan refers to England and the first children to return will be children in nurseries, reception and year 1, as well as those in the last year of primary school, year 6. These groups, it has been mooted, will return on 1 June, while other schoolchildren will return to classrooms in the weeks that follow – however this timetable is provisional.

Children or staff with pre-exisiting medical conditions that could make them very vulnerable to Covid-19 will not be expected to return to school.

Matt Keeling, professor of populations and disease at the University of Warwick, said these particular age groups had largely been picked to return on “educational and welfare grounds”.

Are children at risk from coronavirus?

Children can catch coronavirus, but the vast majority have had only mild symptoms, with under 2% of hospital admissions for Covid-19 in the UK among children under the age of 18, and death very rare.

What about the new inflammatory condition?

There has been a small number of cases around the world of children with a potentially deadly inflammatory syndrome that has been linked to Covid-19. However experts have stressed it is rare, affecting only one in 1,000 children exposed to the virus.

Dr Liz Whittaker, a clinical lecturer in paediatric infectious diseases and immunology at Imperial College London, has previously said the condition “shouldn’t be a factor when we reopen the schools”.

Could schools potentially have to close again?

Michael Tildesley of Warwick University, who works on models of the spread of diseases, said it was a possibility, depending on what happens with R. “If we do start to see the reproduction number going above 1 and cases climbing again we should be prepared to take the decision to close schools again,” he said.

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Better-off children ‘studying more in lockdown’

Children from wealthier families are spending more time each day studying in the coronavirus lockdown compared with the poorest, according to new research.

A survey of families in England suggests better-off children will have studied for around seven days more than their poorer peers by next month.

Children in the highest-income families spend six hours a day on education, but the poorest spend four and a half.

The government said it will do whatever it can to ensure no child falls behind.

The study of more than 4,000 families, carried out for the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), found the gap in time spent on education activities was slightly bigger for primary age children than older pupils.

Whatever their income, more than half of parents said they were finding it hard to support their children learning at home.

Nearly two in three (64%) of secondary pupils in state schools from the richest households are offered some form of active help, compared with 47% from the poorest fifth of families, the study suggests.

Fewer resources

The new analysis from the IFS found that children from more disadvantaged families have fewer educational resources and parental support for home learning.

The research also found poorer children were less likely to have a place to study.

Less than a third (29%) of parents in the poorest families said they would send their child back to primary school given the choice, compared with 55% of the most affluent parents.

Ministers have said some primary school pupils in England should be able to go back to school next month.

But teachers’ unions have raised concerns over safety amid fears a rush to return to the classroom could spread the coronavirus in schools.

Researchers have called on the government to address the disparities between children from different backgrounds during school closures, as they warn the crisis is likely to widen attainment gaps.

Lucy Kraftman, research economist at IFS and co-author of the report, added: “These differences will likely widen pre-existing gaps in test scores between children from different backgrounds.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We will do whatever we can to make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind as a result of coronavirus.

“We have set out plans for a phased return of some year groups from 1 June at the earliest in line with scientific advice.”

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Teachers can legally refuse to return over risk to health, union warns

Teachers can legally refuse to return when schools reopen unless they get the same protections against coronavirus as other frontline staff, one of the UK’s leading teaching unions has warned.

In a letter to local authorities seen by the Guardian, the 300,000-strong NASUWT threatens to invoke legal action to defend teachers against being forced back into schools on 1 June because of the risk to their health.

The union’s letter marks a significant hardening against the government’s push to reopen primary schools in England from 1 June. It comes as one academy chain says it is aiming to invite pupils back on that date.

Signed by the NASUWT’s general secretary, Patrick Roach, the union threatens to delay that start date by forcing the government and local authorities to consider their legal obligations as a new obstacle to reopening.

The union says it has “fundamental concerns” about guidance issued by the government this week, saying it was inconsistent with guidance given to other workplaces, including care homes and the NHS.

“Stringent guidance has been issued for the NHS, for care homes and for employers across the UK. It is unacceptable that this has not been the case for schools,” it says.

“The NASUWT believes that teachers and other school staff have the right to the same consideration and protections, and to be confident that their health and welfare, as well as that of pupils, is at the heart of any planning for wider opening.”

The union said it had to warn local authorities as employers, and the government, that they risked legal action for “breach of duty of care and personal injury due to foreseeable risk, and any other legal recourse available” if efforts were made to force teachers into classrooms during the epidemic.

“The NASUWT recognises that schools and employers have been placed in a situation where the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying, and will therefore appreciate that there can be no compromise on health and safety.

“If this means that schools are unable to open safely before September, because they are unable to make arrangements to safeguard their staff and pupils, then that position must be accepted,” Roach said.

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Some childminders in England told they can reopen

Childminders in England can reopen from Wednesday if they are caring for children from the same household, the government announced late on Tuesday.

The move follows confusion about when childminders could reopen.

“Childminders have been told three different things about plans to reopen in a matter of days,” said Neil Leitch of the Early Years Alliance (EYA).

The EYA said it received news of the change to government guidance in an email just after 18:30 BST on Tuesday.

During lockdown, registered childminders have either been closed or providing care for vulnerable children or children of key workers.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to reopen the sector as part of his “conditional plan” to gradually end the lockdown.

However, organisations representing childminders later sought clarification as separate documents issued by the government suggested both 13 May and 1 June as dates for when this could happen.

In a meeting on Tuesday, the Department for Education appeared to confirm the 1 June date for all childminders, according to the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY).

But in an email to childcare organisations, sent a few hours later, an official issued an update on childminder policy “effective from tomorrow”.

“The government has amended its guidance to clarify that paid childcare can be provided to the children of one household in any circumstance,” said the email.

“This would include nannies, for example, and childminders may also choose to provide childcare on this basis if not already providing care for vulnerable children and children of critical workers.

“This should enable more working parents to return to work.”

Infection fears

PACEY chief executive Liz Bayram welcomed the clarification, saying the organisation had heard from thousands of its members who were unclear when they could reopen.

“It is up to you as an individual to decide whether you want to open now or take time to prepare to open to all children on 1 June,” PACEY advised its members on its web page.

Ms Bayram however warned that not all childminders could consider opening in June because of ongoing worries about infection.

“We also know many childminders are worried about reopening and placing their family at risk.”

She called for better financial support from government for childminders whose businesses have been hit by the lockdown.

Mr Leitch said childminders had “frankly had enough of last-minute, contradictory guidance from this government”.

He urged ministers to stop treating them as an “afterthought” and to recognise that they needed better support and guidance in meeting the challenge of providing childcare safely in their own homes.

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