'Astonishing': Ministers condemned over school openings

PM's announcement of 'impossible' plans to open primaries to all children before the end of the summer term 'smacks of poor organisation', says ex-head of Ofsted
10th June 2020, 11:40am


'Astonishing': Ministers condemned over school openings

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It is "absolutely astonishing" that the government announced plans for primary schools to open to all pupils for a month before the summer without "effective consultation" with headteachers, according to a former Ofsted chief.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, who was chief inspector between 2012 and 2016, said it "smacks of poor organisation" that the prime minister unveiled plans to open primaries to all children in June, when this would be have branded "impossible" by school leaders.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme about plans for a wider reopening of schools, he said the government "needs to get its act together" and "learn from the mistakes that have already been made".

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The news comes after education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed the government is not able to open primaries to all children for a month before the summer - but ministers are working towards a full return to school in September.

Presented with the view that there "hasn't been a plan for education - at least nothing comparable to the plan to make sure there was capacity in the NHS, or the furlough scheme getting up and running so quickly", Sir Michael said: "I think you're right".

"I find it absolutely astonishing that an announcement could be made by the prime minister that all primary schools will open to all children in June without effective consultation with the professional associations and particularly headteachers, who would have said this is impossible under the social distancing arrangements that you're insisting upon," he said.

"It just smacks of poor organisation and Number 10 saying something and the Department for Education not being properly consulted.

"The government needs to get its act together on this one, learn from the mistakes that have already been made, and make sure there is proper planning for September when both primary schools and secondary schools come back."

Sir Michael also said catch up classes should run over the summer holidays - although the government must ensure school budgets are sufficient to handle this - and reiterated calls for pupils to be given the opportunity to repeat the year.

"I speak as not just an ex-head of Ofsted, but an ex-headteacher of a secondary school," he said. 

"What I would be doing is I would be appealing to staff to come in over the summer holidays and take catch-up classes with those youngsters who need it.

"And in the plan that I'm sure the Department for Education are working on at the moment, they need to look at school budgets - whether school budgets can bear that extra cost of paying teachers to come in over the holiday periods and other times of the year."

He added: "Even when they go back in September, not all youngsters will be going back - there will be a phased return for both primary and secondary level, so the amount of time they will have lost will be more than a term.

"Now that's a huge deficit. If when all this is looked at the government believes that youngsters should repeat a year, then that's what should happen.

"Yes there will be logistical problems of two year groups applying to university and so on, but I'm sure those logistical problems can be overcome.

"What's really important is that youngsters don't lose out - they have one chance of a good education - they deserve the same sort of the provision and the same sort of quality of provision that other children have received in previous year groups."

Former education secretary Justine Greening also warned on Monday's BBC Radio 4 World at One programme that the government risks "meandering into a real education crisis" if ministers do not come up with a "proper plan" for a wider opening of schools.

Ms Greening, who was secretary of state for education between 2016 and 2018, said the "big risk" for the current government is that, without a "proper strategy", prime minister Boris Johnson "presides over levelling down" in education.

And Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the Public Accounts Committee, yesterday accused the education secretary of being "asleep on the job".

Speaking in the House of Commons, she said: "I find myself in complete accord with the honourable members for Harlow and for East Worthing and Shoreham, in their desire to see a catch up plan for the very many vulnerable students."

"Can he not seriously give us more information today? There must have been planning. If there hasn't, he's been asleep on the job."

The Department for Education and the prime minister's spokesperson have been approached for comment.

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