Government must lead on reopening of UK schools after lockdown, says union boss | Education

The leader of one of the UK’s biggest teaching unions has told the government not to risk a “free-for-all” policy of allowing individual schools and academy trusts to decide when and how they will reopen.

Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT, said he was concerned there had been discussions in government about giving schools and multi-academy trusts the flexibility and freedom to decide for themselves about reopening.

In an interview with the Guardian, Roach said: “What should not happen is that the government just simply sets a date for schools to be reopened, and then says to schools, to local authorities and multi-academy trusts, it’s over to you now to work out how we are going to deliver that.

“The government has a responsibility to have a clear and coherent plan around the reopening of schools which is led by the scientific evidence which does not result in a free-for-all, where individual schools make their own decisions which could compromise public health and the welfare of those working in schools.”

The UK government has said that these five tests have to be met before they will consider easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions:

  • The NHS has sufficient capacity to provide critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK
  • A sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths from Coronavirus
  • Reliable data to show that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board
  • Operational challenges including testing and personal protective equipement (PPE) are in hand with supply able to meet future demand
  • Confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS

Schools have been closed to all children, except those of key workers and those classified as vulnerable, since 20 March as part of national efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Roach and other union and school leaders have since been holding regular talks with the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, and department officials about how schools should respond to the pandemic.

Roach, who took over as general secretary of the NASUWT in April, said: “There have been discussions about leaving it up to schools to decide, in keeping with government policy over the last 10 years to increase freedoms and flexibility in the system.

“We’ve been very clear it’s vitally important that the government take charge of the situation and they give schools clarity, certainly of what the national expectations are in relation to schools reopening and how schools should go about doing that.”

Conservative education policy has focussed in recent years on allowing greater flexibility and increasing school autonomy through its academies programme, which moves schools out of local authority control and into multi-academy trusts.

Williamson told MPs on the education select committee on Wednesday that schools would reopen in phases and Boris Johnson has promised to set out further plans next week about how to ease lockdown restrictions.

The government has said schools will reopen only when it is safe to do so. Roach said he was concerned, however, that ministers were coming under pressure from Conservative backbenchers and others to speed up the reopening of schools, which would allow parents back to work to help kickstart the economy.

“We are asking ministers to resist that pressure and focus on the public health issues,” said Roach. “But that pressure may prove to be irresistible and ministers might move sooner rather than later to reopen schools in some form.

“I’m sure there’s a desire to see schools open this side of the summer break. From my point of view, what’s critically important is that such decisions are taken on the basis of public health concerns, ensuring the health and safety of our members and pupils.”

Roach said it was still unclear how social distancing might work in schools, or whether personal protective equipment (PPE) would be available for staff who need it.

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