Parents are facing chaos over classroom closures as primaries across the country stay shut today despite Boris Johnson insisting ‘schools are safe’.
The Prime Minister told families yesterday that children should return to school in all areas where they were due to open today and tomorrow.
But as Covid-19 rates soar, teaching unions said that a ‘snowball effect’ was shutting scores of schools despite the official advice to stay open.
Mr Johnson said yesterday that he had ‘no doubt’ that classrooms were safe
Yesterday council leaders in Cumbria, Brighton, Kent, Birmingham and Wolverhampton all formally requested permission for schools in their area to stay shut.
While it waits to hear back from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Brighton and Hove City Council has advised all primary heads to shut their schools, apart from for vulnerable children and those of key workers, and to move learning online.
In Southampton the city council warned that some schools ‘do not have enough staff to reopen safely to all children’, while Slough Borough Council in Berkshire said some primaries would stay closed amid ‘confusion across the board’ caused by the Department for Education.
Labour MP says sorry to minister over jab ‘queue-jumping’ claim
A Labour shadow health spokesman has issued a grovelling apology for falsely suggesting the vaccine minister had jumped the queue to get a jab.
Rosena Allin-Khan admitted it had been ‘inappropriate and wrong’ to share unverified claims about Nadhim Zahawi.
The Labour frontbencher had posted on Twitter that she had heard ‘rumours’ the Tory minister and his family had been vaccinated in Wandsworth, south-west London. But after it transpired the rumour was untrue, Dr Allin-Khan was reprimanded by the Labour Party, ordered to remove her claims and told to apologise. She tweeted: ‘I have deleted my earlier tweets which were inappropriate and wrong. I regret sharing unsubstantiated claims about the minister and I apologise to him and his family.’
Mr Zahawi, who is overseeing the vaccine rollout, then replied: ‘Thank you for apologising. The accusation was not true. It is sad you chose to act like this, we all need to work together to beat this awful disease.’
Councils in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne all pledged to support heads who needed to close their schools, while Preston City Council’s leader said primaries should remain closed ‘until they can reopen safely’.
Norfolk County Council also said it would support heads who needed to keep their schools shut.
The chaos has left thousands of parents facing a scramble to find care for their children.
It has worrying parallels with the first education shutdown in March, which was only announced by the Government after many schools had already closed of their own accord. Secondary school pupils in exam years are already due to return a week later than planned, from January 11, while other years are scheduled to go back from January 18.
And all London primaries were ordered to stay shut for the first two weeks of the January term after a U-turn on Friday.
The Government’s list of areas where primaries will stay shut also includes parts of Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.
Now nearly a third of the country – some 17million people – are living in areas where primaries have been told to close by the Government, or where councils have said they will back heads who decide to close their gates. Despite the unfolding chaos, Mr Johnson said yesterday that he had ‘no doubt’ that classrooms were safe. He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘Schools are safe. It is very, very important to stress that.
‘The risk to kids, to young people is really very, very small indeed. The risk to staff is very small.’
He added: ‘I understand people’s frustrations, I understand people’s anxieties but there is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe and that education is a priority.’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his plans were insufficient and it was ‘inevitable’ many would stay closed today.
The unofficial closures came after Britain’s biggest teaching union, the National Education Union, called an online meeting attended by 400,000 teachers and supporters where they were told to ‘say no’ to reopenings.
Kevin Courtney, its joint general secretary, told teachers who dialled in that they should protest against returning to school – and that this could lead to a ‘snowball effect’. Within hours, the message appeared to be having an effect.
By last night, many schools had made the decision not to open, despite being outside the Government’s ‘contingency framework’, which mandates closures, with some citing union advice. The Daily Mail has learned of many schools being forced into 11th-hour decisions in the face of staff shortages. For example, Lea Community Primary School, in Preston, said that ‘due to health and safety, a rising increase in transmission and infection rates… and following advice of unions’ it was unsafe for it to open.
And St Mary’s Catholic Primary School, in Birmingham also said ‘insufficient staff’ was the reason behind its decision to close. All classes would be taught via ‘live’ lessons delivered online instead.
Bedford Primary School, in Bootle, Merseyside, said it would be shut to pupils, apart from those of key workers, for at least a week ‘due to reduced staffing ratios.’
Salford mayor Paul Dennett wrote to Mr Williamson last night saying he wanted face-to-face learning to be looked at again. He said he would ‘support any Salford school leader who assesses that it is not safe to open their school’.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mr Williamson gave no indication he was considering widening school closures. ‘The safety of teachers and pupils will always be paramount, but we must all move heaven and earth to get children back to the classroom where they best thrive,’ he wrote.
I RUN A BUSINESS – AND HELP MY SON
Rachel Allen, 40, is a single mother to Lewis, seven, and runs a social media consultancy from her home in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. Her area is in Tier Four, with latest data showing a new case rate of 739 per 100,000 in the week to December 28.
Rachel Allen, 40, is a single mother to Lewis, seven, (pictured together) and runs a social media consultancy from her Tier 4 home in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. She says: ‘As a self-employed single parent trying to maintain a business that was decimated at the start of lockdown, school is a lifeline for me’
She says: ‘As a self-employed single parent trying to maintain a business that was decimated at the start of lockdown, school is a lifeline for me. It gives me the space to concentrate on maintaining an income, while Lewis can be in the classroom with friends getting the education he needs.
‘I don’t qualify for any support and I don’t have any savings to fall back on so I have to keep the business running and fit that around providing some kind of education for my son, who is in Year Three.
‘As the first lockdown started… my existing business was almost annihilated overnight. Thankfully I was able to hold on, but I must have dropped £10,000 this year and to say that it has been a hard slog would be an understatement – there have been times where I have felt like my head was in a pressure cooker.
‘Despite that, we came up with our routine: fitting my work around gaps to help Lewis with his work, and then I picked up an NHS contract which meant I was a key worker and he could go back to school in June. But now it’s back to home school.
‘I’m very fortunate that Lewis’s dad lives nearby and is very helpful and involved. When the schools closed last time, we took it in turns taking Lewis and we will do the same again this time, but both he and his partner work full-time too.
‘Luckily, Lewis is very adaptable and takes everything in his stride, but I do worry about how all this will impact him long term. Obviously I don’t want my son’s education to suffer, but I have to prepare myself for the fact that it probably will.
‘As a single parent, and a self-employed one at that, we are resilient – I simply have to knuckle down and get on with it.’
THE KIDS WANT TO RETURN TO LESSONS
Ella Brucher, 35, a self-employed cleaner, has two children, Scarlet, six, and Dominic, ten, with her husband, Nicholas, 40, a company director. They live in Purley, near Croydon in south London, which is in Tier Four and has a case rate of 835.5 per 100,000 residents:
‘Having taken time off for the Christmas holidays, I was expecting to go back to work this week. But Wednesday evening’s announcement has changed all that.
Ella Brucher, 35, a self-employed cleaner, has two children, Scarlet, six, and Dominic, ten, (pictured together) in Purley which is in Tier 4. Ms Brucher said: ‘After not being able to work at all for three months earlier in the year, it’s very difficult – and more than that, it’s hard for the children, too. They want to be back at school.’
‘After not being able to work at all for three months earlier in the year, it’s very difficult – and more than that, it’s hard for the children, too.
‘They want to be back at school, they miss being able to socialise – and with not being able to meet friends outside of school, the classroom was the only place they got that important interaction.
‘My son plays computer games and talks with friends over headphones, he has his lessons, he is sensible and can work on his own, but he’s missing interaction with the teacher that he can only get at school, and this is his last year of primary school.
‘It’s very hard for my little girl, she has missed half of Year One and refused to do any home learning – and now here we are again.
‘I think the impact of this will be felt for years to come.
‘As for me, I would have been working for five days, but now I’m going to have to fit as much as I can into two days so that I can be there to look after the children and support them with their schoolwork.
‘I will have to let some of my clients down. I’m just thankful that those who have children and are in the same position will understand.
‘My husband has been able to keep working from home, but he has to go into work one to two days a week, so we simply have no choice.
‘I just hope that in two weeks they will be able to go back.’
Will exams be scrapped AGAIN this summer?
Boris Johnson has refused to rule out cancelling exams this summer after headteachers called for them to scrapped.
The Prime Minister has come under pressure to axe GCSEs and A-Levels because so many children have missed out on schooling since the pandemic began.
Secondary schools have been ordered to close for the first two weeks of term to suppress Covid – particularly the new, faster-spreading variant – and there are fears the shutdown could last until February.
Headteachers have warned of huge inequality in the system, with some pupils left to face the summer exams less prepared than others. Asked yesterday on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 whether exams should be cancelled, the Prime Minister declined to rule the idea out, adding: ‘We’ve got to be realistic about the pace at which this new variant has spread, we’ve got to be realistic about the impact it’s having on our NHS, and we’ve got to be humble in the face of this virus.’
No exams took place last summer, with GSCE and A-level grades based on teacher assessments.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson insists national exams must go ahead this summer, even though Scotland and Wales have abandoned them.
PM’s vow to cut ‘absurd’ red tape thwarting vaccination volunteers
The Prime Minister has ordered the removal of ‘absurd’ red tape putting off former health workers from signing up as vaccination volunteers.
Health chiefs are recruiting an army of helpers to ramp up vaccination levels.
But retired doctors and nurses who applied were told to produce 21 documents, including proof they had been on courses to combat racism and terrorism. They also had to prove they had competence in fire safety, conflict resolution, human rights and data security.
They branded the system ‘ridiculous’ and ‘impossible’, while doctors’ leaders demanded a rethink.
Boris Johnson said ministers planned to simplify the process, adding: ‘It’s absurd. The Health Secretary is taking steps to get rid of that pointless bureaucracy.’
But former education secretary Lord Baker told The Sunday Times that teachers should be allowed to grade their students instead.
He said teachers should take into account the number of days missed, adding: ‘They are better than algorithms and they are the only people who can possibly assess the achievement of their students in this extraordinary time.’
More than 2,000 headteachers from the campaign group WorthLess? insist health should not be put at risk simply to protect exam timetables. They added: ‘Wider public health, pupil and staff safety should be prioritised ahead of examinations. Public safety should not be risked or driven by an inflexible pursuit of GCSE and A-Levels.’
One of its leaders, Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School in Horsham, West Sussex, told The Sunday Times there was ‘great scepticism that exams can go ahead fairly’.
Recommending teacher assessments for final grades instead, the group said it would be more unfair on pupils in areas hit harder by the pandemic to go ahead with exams.
But Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: ‘Most children I talk to want exams to continue, but clearly they need to be fair.’
An expert panel is due to report to the Education Secretary with recommendation for making exams fair for children across England.
There are concerns about how to take into account the hidden disadvantages for children whose access to remote learning is poor.
Matt Hood, principal of Oak National Academy, which was commissioned by the Government to produce online lessons, said one million children had been forced to use their parents’ mobile phones to study because they did not own a phone or laptop.
The Department for Education said there was no plan to cancel exams.