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Boris Johnson is facing increased pressure to set out a plan for the return to schools in England, amid worries from MPs and children’s advocates about the government’s refusal to commit to them reopening even after Easter.
With the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of Conservative MPs saying ministers must set out a timetable for the process, another senior backbencher, Robert Halfon, has sought an urgent question in the Commons on Monday.
The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said that while she accepted that the still high coronavirus infection rates made reopening schools difficult, more clarity was needed and there seemed to be a “slight sense of defeatism” over the issue.
On Sunday the health secretary, Matt Hancock, refused to commit to either mid-February, after the half-term break, or after Easter as a point for schools to reopen fully.
A senior government source has said that although there are signs of a slowing of Covid infection rates, they are not falling nearly as sharply as had been expected. The source said the picture on easing lockdown measures had become more pessimistic over the past week.
Mark Harper, the former chief whip who now chairs the CRG, reiterated the group’s call for reopening efforts to begin three weeks after the top four priority groups for the coronavirus vaccine have received their first dose.
“It seems to us [that] at that point you need to start bringing the economy back to life, and the first thing that needs to be reopened are our schools,” Harper told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “All we’re asking for at this point is for the government to set out that sort of plan, based on milestones, based on evidence, so that school leaders, parents, children, have some hope and know what to expect.”
Harper said the government could expect dissent from MPs if it did not take this action. “Set that plan out, and enable us to debate that plan in parliament. I would love the government to set a plan out. I’m not trying to second-guess the government. But if the government doesn’t come forward with a plan, it can’t be surprised if other people will fill the vacuum.”
Halfon, who chairs the Commons education select committee and has been an influential voice on the issue, said he had sought an urgent question on Monday afternoon “to get clarity from the government as to what the roadmap is to get our schools open again, sooner rather than later.”
He told Times Radio: “We need to get our teachers and support staff vaccinated. That will make a big difference. But I’m hugely worried about the impact on mental health, on educational attainment, on safeguarding, the longer we keep our schools closed.”
Longfield said the long and repeated closures of schools since March had brought about a huge rise in children’s mental health issues, with one in six now experiencing problems, and had also widened attainment gaps.
“We’re looking at children with sleep disruption, who have lost the ability to cope, who are fearful about their future,” she told Today. “This is a very serious issue for those children, and for their families.”
She said families “will need hope and clarity about what comes next”, and she called for a robust Covid testing system for schools, and the possible use of vaccinations.
“There is a sort of slight sense of defeatism in the air,” she said of the government’s attitude, arguing that unions and local councils meanwhile believed they could get at least some classes back before too long.
“It can be done, and I think that’s what parents need to know now,” she said. “I would like a slide on every No 10 briefing to show progress back to school, to keep parents and children informed.”
Discussions are under way in the Department for Education to decide which pupils could be prioritised, with early years and older children facing exams in the summer among those who could be brought back first. Attendance rotas could be introduced to keep numbers down in schools but allow for more face-to-face teaching.
One possibility raised to help reopen schools has been to move teachers up the list of people due to receive vaccinations. However, Harper said he did not want to see them moved ahead of any of the first nine currently scheduled groups, which covers people aged 50 or above or with underlying health conditions.
“I don’ t think it’s right to take vaccinations away from the most vulnerable groups,” Harper said.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Tory MPs and children’s tsar urge clarity over English schools’ reopening | Education policy