Burnham: DfE cannot plough on with primary schools plan

As the prime minister insists that schools are safe amid the Covid spike, Greater Manchester's mayor warns of chaos
3rd January 2021, 11:45am
Kate Parker


Burnham: DfE cannot plough on with primary schools plan

Coronavirus: Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham Has Warned The Government About Fully Reopening Primary Schools

The government cannot plough ahead with the decision to keep primary schools open for in-person teaching, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said this morning.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Burnham said that primary teachers and parents face a "chaotic situation" tomorrow and that the government had two options: either delay the primary face-to-face openings or give decision making to local leaders.

He said: "The current course is not going to work…it would be quite a chaotic situation tomorrow, I think, given all of the anxieties that people have. So I think there are two options in front of the government. One is to give the decision making to councils working with local schools so that decisions can be made on the reality of what's happening within different communities.

"The other would be primary schools and special schools on the same path as secondaries, and that will be a slightly delayed opening. What I would say to the prime minister…is it has to be one of those options: local flexibility or a delay to the opening because I think just to plough ahead would cause quite a lot of anxiety amongst people today." 

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Speaking on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show this morning, prime minister Boris Johnson said that parents should send their children to primary school tomorrow in the areas in which they are still open for face-to-face teaching, and that there was no doubt in his mind that schools are safe.

Coronavirus: Fears over reopening schools

However, Brighton and Hove City Council has already advised its primary schools to delay in-person teaching and teach remotely until 18 January. Meanwhile, Birmingham City Council wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson to urge him to reconsider the start of face-to-face teaching in primary schools for those in tier 4 areas. 

Dr Susan Hopkins, senior medical adviser at Public Health England, said: "Attending school is important for the mental health and educational benefits for children. School closure can reduce transmission but the public health advice remains that they should be the last to close and the first to reopen. Where rates are extremely high, continuing to rise and the NHS is under significant pressure, it may be necessary to move to remote learning as a last resort.

"The majority of children and young people have no symptoms or very mild illness, but we all need to take responsibility for driving infections down if we want to keep schools open for our children - we must continue to reduce our contacts, keep our distance, wash our hands and wear a mask to help stop the spread of the virus."

Teaching unions across the country have called on the government to delay in-person teaching in primary schools over concerns about Covid safety. 

The NASUWT has written to Mr Williamson, calling for an "immediate nationwide move to remote education" for all pupils.

However, in an alert sent out to members on Saturday, the union said that members who are feeling unsafe about the return should not refuse to attend the workplace without advice from the union. The email encourages members to first raise concerns with line managers and headteachers, ask to see an updated risk assessment for the school and then contact NASUWT for advice and support. 

'Prioritise teachers for vaccination'

The children's commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, told BBC News this morning that she thought teachers should be prioritised for vaccination. 

Ms Longfield said that if schools are to be closed for in-person teaching, it should be for a minimum amount of time, and that time should be used to vaccinate teachers.

She said: "I've argued for months and months now that schools need to be a priority for children not only with education but also their wellbeing and that schools should be the last to close and the first to open, so it's a serious moment for children. 

"And if there have to be closures, we're already seeing closures in secondary schools for two weeks, but if there have to be closures at all, it must be the absolute minimum amount of time, and that time must be used very, very well. I would say testing, of course - we know that there are plans in place for that - but also I would like teachers to be offered vaccination as a priority. That's something we haven't heard yet from government, but something I think is very necessary."

Call to delay reopening of EYFS providers

In another development, more than 2,150 early years (EY) educators have signed a letter to Mr Williamson calling on him to delay the reopening of day nurseries, preschools and childminders. 

The letter says: "Evidence from SAGE [the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] clearly shows that transmission is taking place at the same rate in EY providers, maintained nursery schools and in EY classes within schools, as in primary schools with older children. With this in mind, we urge you to take action now and apply these same delays to all early years providers (not just those based in schools) such as day nurseries, preschools and childminders."

It adds: "We urge you to apply the same safety measures around delayed opening for primary schools to all EYFS providers, thus enabling them to offer the same essential care for critical workers and vulnerable children to minimise contacts and spread of the virus. We urge you to provide the financial support the sector needs to survive this pandemic. We urge you to hear the voices from the sector working on the ground in these unprecedented times."

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