Boris Johnson urged to set out recovery plan for schools in England
Boris Johnson needs an urgent national plan to get all pupils back to school in England from September, with an army of support staff, the requisitioning of public buildings and extra help for disadvantaged students, unions and cross-party MPs have said.
As the government admitted that most primary pupils in England would not get back to the classroom before summer, ministers were urged to set out a comprehensive strategy or risk an “epidemic of educational poverty”.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, had hoped all primary schools in the country would reopen four weeks before the summer holidays but was forced to admit on Tuesday that this would be missed because of the difficulty of keeping children apart and in bubbles of 15. Government sources said scientists were reluctant to advise the watering-down of physical distancing rules at this point in the pandemic.
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Another 286 coronavirus deaths were reported in the UK on Tuesday, with the number of excess deaths since lockdown hitting 63,000 – a toll believed to be greater than anywhere else except the US.
Announcing the U-turn in the Commons, Williamson said he hoped all schools could return by September but could not guarantee that would be achieved.
New statistics showed that just one in four eligible children in reception, year 1 and year 6 returned last week, undermining Johnson’s plan to allow parents back to work to boost the economy.
Teaching unions warned that a September start for all pupils should not be taken for granted, and called for a national recovery plan for education. “The consequences of Covid-19 are going to be felt in our education system for months to come,” said Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU).
With fears of a second spike in infections, the NEU is advising the government to develop a national approach to “blended learning” combining education at home and school, with increased support for disadvantaged children, including free internet access. There have been growing concerns about the disparity in quality and quantity of online learning available to pupils since lockdown.
The union also suggested the requisitioning of local public spaces, including libraries and community centres, to reduce pressure on school space. “The scale of the challenge is immense,” said Bousted. “We need a national recovery plan for education along the lines of the job recovery plan.”
A string of Conservative MPs – including the former education ministers Robert Halfon and Tim Loughton – called on the government to consider radical measures to help pupils lagging behind after missing up to six months of education. Halfon, the chair of the education select committee, warned there would be an “epidemic of educational poverty” without more assistance for those most at risk of falling behind.
Loughton suggested catch-up schemes and mentoring over the summer using “National Citizen Service youth workers … or mobilising the many students who are now delaying going to university and will find it hard to travel or get a job”.
Labour also called for ministers to consult unions, headteachers and parents on a new timetable for reopening, saying the government “need[s] to face up to the scale of damage this is doing to children and scale up their response”.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow education secretary, said: “The starting point for this needs to be rapid action to support summer schemes for this summer.”
The SNP suggested England could follow Scotland with a plan for blended learning and use of libraries and council offices to relieve pressure on classroom space. Scotland has also suggested retired teachers could consider returning to the classroom.
Williamson admitted helping children catch up could take “a full year and more”, but resisted the idea of summer schools. He said schools that were not able to reopen would be given “basic minimum curriculum requirements we expect them to deliver for all children”.
If the need for physical distancing persists in schools, more staff will have to be recruited to teach smaller classes, potentially from the thousands of disillusioned teachers who have left the profession in recent years over workload and pay. About one in five teachers (22%) quit within the first two years, rising to two in five after 10 years.
According to official statistics, just over half of primary schools in England reopened to more pupils from 1 June. Williamson said that figure had now risen to more than 70% of primary schools.
Schools will be permitted to open to more age groups if they have space, but not all have the facilities to keep children 2 metres apart, particularly those in smaller urban buildings.
Defending the government’s approach, Williamson said: “We believe this cautious, phased return is the most sensible course of action to take. While we are not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer, we continue to work with the sector on the next steps where we would like to see schools that have the capacity bring back more children to do so before the summer holidays … We will be working to bring all children back to school in September … Exams will take place next year.”
While Labour and the unions said the delay was right, the decision was met with dismay in some quarters, as the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, warned that children’s education was being forgotten while theme parks, pubs and shops were being allowed to reopen.
She called on the government to come up with a coherent plan to make up for children’s lost education and show the same level of determination that led to the opening of emergency Nightingale hospitals and the introduction of the furlough scheme to save millions of jobs.
Schools may have to build additional portable buildings or find temporary accommodation in sports halls or empty offices to accommodate more children safely, she said.
“Some worry that the economy is clearly being prioritised and education is not being prioritised at the same level. From everything that’s been said, [children] could be going to theme parks and sitting in pub gardens with their parents, or they could be shopping, but they will not be in school. That seems to be the wrong way round. The risk is that children will get left behind in this lockdown.
“Time has a different meaning for children – two months, six months is a lifetime when you are 11 years old. Like us, children are worried. They are worried about whether life will ever be the same again. Will normality ever return?”
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