Labour demands clarity on January return for schools and colleges

Elliot Chappell

Labour has demanded that the Education Secretary provide clarity for parents, teachers and students on the return of schools and colleges in January following reports that the government is considering keeping them closed.

In a letter to Gavin Williamson, Labour’s Kate Green and Wes Streeting have urged the Education Secretary to outline what plans the government has after reports emerged that ministers are considering a switch to remote learning.

The Shadow Education Secretary and shadow minister for schools stressed the need for Williamson to provide clarity now, rather than wait until just a “matter of hours or days before students and staff are due to return to the classroom”.

Commenting on the letter, Green said: “Once again when schools, pupils and parents need certainty, the government has created chaos. The government has lost control of the virus and children’s education is suffering as a result.

“Gavin Williamson’s late announcement on testing has created huge stress and confusion, and now the Prime Minister has said these plans published just five days ago may not happen.

“The government must provide pupils, parents, and schools with clear information about what will happen in January and what support they will receive.”

The Education Secretary last week announced the staggered return of schools in January with the roll-out of mass testing. Schools, unions and organisations issued a joint response, calling the government proposals “inoperable”.

According to the plan, lateral flow test kits will be sent to schools. Students and staff identified as having had close contact with a Covid case will be able to get a daily test over seven days while teachers will get weekly tests.

GMB argued that school staff not medically trained should not be performing the tests. The union highlighted the chance of returning a false positive in these tests when performed by scientists is 20%, doubling to 42.5% when self-administered.

The National Education Union has called for schools to be allowed to stay closed until January 18th, with remote learning in place, after scientists warned that the new variant of Covid may infect children “slightly more effectively”.

“We support the desire of the government to have an accurate and effective system of mass testing,” NEU joint secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney told the Prime Minister. “However, we are concerned that such a system will not be in place for January 4th.”

As well as asking that schools be allowed to remain shut for longer, the union has suggested that the government begin vaccinating education staff and that it should ask local public health directors to spearhead the mass testing efforts.

Williamson said secondary schools would reopen in January on a staggered basis, with only exam year groups, vulnerable children and those of key workers “prioritised” for testing and expected to return as normal after the break.

He announced that other pupils would receive “full-time remote education, as close as possible to that which students would get in class, during the first week of term with face-to-face education for all starting on 11 January”.

But Labour has highlighted that five days after the plans were published by the government, the Prime Minister was unable to guarantee that they would not change. In the letter to the minister, the party has demanded that Williamson:

  • “Urgently publish scientific evidence on the spread of the virus in schools and colleges and the risk this poses to students, staff and wider transmission within the community, including the new strain;
  • “Guarantee that every student will be able access learning from home, if required;
  • “Put in place plans to safeguard vulnerable children in the event that schools and colleges close;
  • “Involve the unions and school and college representatives in planning for the return of schools and roll out of testing;
  • “Confirm whether plans for mass testing will go ahead; and
  • “Immediately clarify when school and college staff can expect to be vaccinated against coronavirus.”

The government proposals are non-statutory but the minister has not said whether action will be taken against schools not complying. Williamson threatened legal action for schools switching to remote learning against departmental guidance.

Robert Jenrick this morning said decisions on schools should not be made by local councils. He argued: “What we don’t want to see is local authorities making individual judgments on a piecemeal basis as to whether to open or close schools.

“That’s not right. There needs to be a clear message throughout the country. We will be bringing young people back in January. We want to keep schools open.”

He added: “We’re going to try to ensure that those young people, particularly in the affected age categories, get the testing before coming back to the classroom to protect themselves and teachers in the wider community. That will mean a staggered start.”

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government told Times Radio that schools would “definitely” return in January and said further guidance would be made available in the next few days for schools to make plans.

Below is the full text of the letter sent by Green and Streeting.

Dear Gavin,

News reports, prominently in The Daily Telegraph, suggest that ministers are planning to close schools throughout January due to fears that covid-19 is spreading faster among children. The Prime Minister was equivocal in Monday’s press conference around whether schools would return in January as planned. An issue of this magnitude cannot be left to speculation and off-the-record briefings. We expect to hear clearly from you and the Prime Minister about the situation for schools and colleges and what you intend to do about it.

If schools are not able to reopen safely in January it will be a direct result of the government’s failure to get transmission under control. Labour have said time and again that school is the best place for pupils. If you and your government have failed to ensure that they can be there safely, then you must urgently ensure that there is a credible plan in place to keep them learning and safe in the weeks ahead.

The chaotic handling of plans for mass testing in schools and colleges has already raised serious questions about the impact that your dither and delay will have on their planned return in January. Parents, students and staff deserve answers now about how you intend to keep students learning and provide a safe working environment for staff.

Firstly, what does the science tell us about the spread of the virus in schools and colleges and the risk this poses to students, staff and wider transmission within the community? Will you publish the scientific advice government receives on this? The Telegraph reports concerns from government scientists that the virus is spreading faster among children. Is this correct? What evidence has the government collected about transmission within school and college settings?

These reports understandably raise concerns about the safe return of students and staff in January. There is already a crisis of confidence in the government among school and college staff after the shambolic end to the term and the chaotic plans to roll out mass testing in January. These concerns must be addressed immediately, openly, and honestly to avoid further panic and confusion and to allow school and college leaders to plan the term ahead.

What is your plan for the return of schools and colleges in January? Can you outline the circumstances in which schools and colleges will or will not reopen at the beginning of next term? When will parents, students, and staff receive this information? When will your Department publish a credible plan for BTECs and other technical and vocational exams in January? These are urgent questions which need answers now, not a matter of hours or days before students and staff are due to return to the classroom.

Can you guarantee that every student will be able access learning from home, if required? Keeping students learning must be a priority. If scientific evidence directs that schools and colleges should revert to remote learning and teaching, you must ensure that no student is left behind. Throughout this crisis your Department’s approach to closing the digital divide to ensure that all pupils have access to suitable devices and internet access has been flat-footed and incompetent. You u-turned on cutting the laptop allocation to schools shortly before Christmas, can you now guarantee that every student learning from home has technology needed to do so? If not, why not?

What plans will the government put in place to safeguard vulnerable children? During the first lockdown, hundreds of vulnerable children did not attend school, yet the government did nothing. If learning is moved online in the new year, what plans will you put in place to safeguard vulnerable children, ensure they are attending school as required and can continue learning?

How will you involve the unions and school and college representatives in planning for the beginning of next term and the roll out of mass testing? Unions and professional organisations want the return of schools and mass testing to be a success, and the government should be using their expertise to deliver this. You must realise that these organisations are representing genuine concerns of their members, who are doing all they can to keep students learning and urgently work with them to restore trust among staff.

Is the plan for mass testing still going ahead? We have been calling on your department to introduce for mass testing in schools for months but were dismayed at the government’s late announcement last week. The stress created by this late announcement is now being compounded by the lack of clear guidance. On Friday, Nick Gibb told the Today Programme “the detail, operational details will be published next week as we work this through”. Given we are now just a few days away from Christmas when can schools and colleges expect this? This must include clarity on what training will be provided to schools, what resources will be provided to deliver testing and what staffing costs will be reimbursed.

When can school and college staff expect to receive a vaccine? The Health Secretary said has suggested that the government could look to move school staff up the order for vaccination. Can you confirm whether this is the case, and when staff – beyond those already identified as clinically vulnerable – can expect to receive a vaccine?

We do not believe that you understand or appreciate the immense pressure that has faced staff, students and parents during the course of this year. Your government has added to that pressure through a combination of poor planning and incompetence. Their safety is paramount. Keeping students learning must be a national priority. We expect you to set out a plan to achieve that objective immediately.

We look forward to your response.

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