'Keeping schools open is a critically vital civic duty'

Our children need to be safe, they need to be cared for and they need to be fed. And, for these reasons, says Jo Coton, schools need to stay open

Primary classroom with only a few pupils in it

Gavin Williamson is absolutely right to say that schools should stay open as long as we can.

These are extraordinary times – the most challenging any of us have surely faced, whether we work in education or not. We must support the national effort for as long as possible.

The time will surely come, perhaps soon, when the government changes its advice and orders schools to close.

But, until then, I fully support the decision that schools should stay open. The government is taking the expert advice of its chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser. And if they say that we should remain open, then we should.

Our primary role is to care for children

The schools in the academy trust I lead are in Harlow and Waltham Abbey: areas of some deprivation. Our academies reflect our communities, with high proportions of children who are among the poorest in society

At all times, our primary role is to care for these children, and to ensure their health and wellbeing. At moments like this, that duty of care is not just the priority, but our raison d’être.

As long as we have enough staff able to come to work and not self-isolating, then we will be open. Our children need to be safe, they need to be cared for and they need to be fed.

But we also have a critically important civic duty to fulfil, and we must show what the secretary of state described as “community leadership”. 

Many of our parents need to keep working for as long as they can, to ensure they continue to bring in a wage for their families. We must stay open so that they can go to work and earn.

All kinds of key workers

And the jobs they do are also essential. Some are employed in the NHS or are social workers. Again, we have to stay open to care for their children through the day, so that they go to work and care for the sick and the elderly. 

They are not the only key workers through this crisis. We have other mums and dads who are shelf-stackers in local supermarkets or till assistants in our pharmacies. If these shops are to stay open – and we need them to – then they need to be staffed.

Few of our parents can afford emergency childcare. And, of course, they cannot ask the over-70s to help, which rules out many grandparents whom they so often call on.

So it falls to us. My staff – and the thousands of other teachers who are working through this period to keep schools open and children safe – are heroes. 

Some are self-isolating – they cannot work and nor should they. Those who can are working. 

They are, as Mr Williamson said, on the frontline of this national crisis. We will continue to play our part for as long as we can, and I am remarkably proud of our profession and the values of those within it.

Jo Coton is chief executive officer of the NET academies trust

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