Starmer defies teaching unions to insist schools stay open in lockdown
1st November 2020

Labour leader Keir Starmer defies teaching unions to insist schools MUST stay open during November lockdown starting on Thursday after leftwingers called for the CLOSURE of classrooms

  • Starmer insisted that classrooms must not close when English lockdown starts
  •  Contradicts views of National Education Union which wants them shut
  • Starmer: ‘We have to manage the risk but it is a priority to keep schools open’

Sir Keir Starmer putting himself on a collision path with teaching unions today saying schools must stay open during the next lockdown for the good of the children.

The Labour leader insisted that classrooms must not close when England shuts up shop for four weeks from Thursday. 

Boris Johnson announced that schools, colleges and universities would be exempt from the four-week shutdown that starts on Thursday.

But Sir Keir”s vehement comments this morning were in direct contrast to the wishes of union bosses.

Last night the National Education Union’s joint general secretary Kevin Courtney called for schools to be included in the new lockdown restrictions and said it would be a ‘mistake’ to allow them to remain open.

And the University and College Union (UCU) said it would be ‘incomprehensible’ if teaching continued in person during the new lockdown.

Told of Mr Courtney’s view on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show today, Mr Starmer said: ‘I want schools open, I think the harm to children from being out of school is too high – we have to manage the risk but it is a priority to keep schools open. 

‘We need to make sure that they are as safe as possible. The government should put in place effective testing at school. Put children, teachers and staff at the front of the queue in the same way as NHS staff to make sure we control it.’

The Labour leader insisted that classrooms must not close when England shuts up shop for four weeks from Thursday.

Last night the National Education Union’s joint general secretary Kevin Courtney called for schools to be included in the new lockdown restrictions and said it would be a ‘mistake’ to allow them to remain open

Mr Courtney said not including schools and colleges in new lockdown measures would likely lead to the need for even longer lockdowns in future. 

‘The latest figures from the ONS estimate that 1 per cent of primary pupils and 2 per cent of secondary pupils have the virus and that these levels have increased dramatically since wider opening in September,’ he said.

‘NEU analysis of ONS figures shows that virus levels are now nine times higher amongst primary pupils and an astonishing 50 times higher amongst secondary pupils.

‘The National Education Union called for a two-week circuit break over half-term to include schools, which the Wales Government and the Northern Ireland assembly have done – but the Government in Westminster has ignored this call.

‘More severe measures are now called for as a result, the Government should not make this mistake again.

‘The Government should include all schools in proposals for an immediate national lockdown and as a minimum be preparing for school rotas at the end of that period, including by actually meeting its promise to deliver broadband and equipment to those children who do not have them.

‘It is also vital that the Government ensure proper financial support for all those affected by lockdown including crucial supply teachers and other staff.’

However, a landmark coronavirus study in August found the risk of transmission in classrooms is minimal.

The PHE study, which tested more than 20,000 pupils and 100 teachers, is hoped to allay the concerns of wary teacher unions, which thwarted ministers’ initial attempts to resume classes for fears of staff catching the virus. 

Figures put together by the UCU suggest that there have been more than 35,000 cases on campuses since term started last month.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘The health and safety of the country is being put at risk because of this government’s insistence that universities must continue with in-person teaching.

‘It would be incomprehensible if universities were allowed to continue to do this after the outbreaks we have seen on campuses across the country this term.

‘Ministers must tell universities to move all non-essential in-person teaching online as part of any national lockdown.’

The body has been campaigning for a total shift online for some time, and previously launched a petition demanding that the switch was made ‘where possible’. 

However, Mr Johnson confirmed at Saturday evening’s Downing Street press conference that schools, universities and colleges would remain open as he announced a new nationwide lockdown. 

He said the country could not afford to allow the virus to ‘damage our children’s futures even more than it has already.’   

However, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said it is ‘very welcome’ that schools would remain open and added it would have been a ‘disaster’ if they were to close. 

Her comments were echoed by the prominent headmistress Katharine Birbalsingh, who said it was ‘wonderful’ that schools will remain open.

Teaching unions are already calling for schools to shut in defiance of Boris Johnson’s insistence on Saturday that they will remain open during a new national lockdown

Confirming a new national lockdown from Thursday, in which bars and restaurants will have to close, Mr Johnson insisted that schools would remain open. 

He said: ‘My priority – our priority – remains keeping people in education. 

‘So childcare, early years settings, schools, colleges and universities will all remain open. 

‘Our senior clinicians still advise that school is the best place for children to be. 

‘We cannot let this virus damage our children’s futures even more than it has already and I urge parents to continue taking their children to school. 

‘I’m extremely grateful to teachers across the country for their dedication in enabling schools to remain open,’ he added.

Ms Longfield wrote on Twitter ahead of the widely expected announcement: ‘Suggestions that schools will stay open during a forthcoming lockdown are very welcome. 

‘We’ve always said that schools should be the last to shut & first to open. It would be a disaster for children’s well-being and education if they were to close.’ 

She added that schools have been able to stay open since September because of the ‘fantastic work’ they and teachers have taken to make them ‘Covid secure’. 

‘Our survey of children showed children were delighted to be back at school, felt safe, and understood all the rules,’ she said. 

Jo Grady (pictured) of the University and College Union (UCU) said it would be ‘incomprehensible’ if teaching continued in person during the new lockdown

And Ms Birbalsingh, who is headmistress of top-performing Michaela Community School in Wembley, north-west London, also welcomed the news.

She told MailOnline: I think it’s wonderful that the schools are staying open. 

‘All children have suffered in terms of their learning but all the more so the disadvantaged and without schools being open I really fear for their welfare.

‘It is essential to keep them open. I’m very grateful that they remain open not just for the sake of the children but for my own sake. I get to work every day and i love that.

‘Well I suppose the unions will do what the unions do and the rest of us will get on with the job.’

Speaking of her own pupils, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, Ms Birbalsingh said they ‘suffered’ earlier this year when schools were closed.   

However, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England said the suggestion that schools would remain open was ‘very welcome’ and said it would be a ‘disaster’ if they were to close

Katharine Birbalsingh,  the headmistress of top-performing MIchael Community School in Wembley, north-west London, told MailOnline it was ‘wonderful’ that schools will remain open

‘We did Zoom lessons, we did video lessons, we used google classroom, our chlidren completed the work and attended the lessons.

‘But when they returned, you can’t test them on Zoom, it just meant that even though they were supposedly doing the work, but it wasn’t sticking and so it meant they had made very little progress, despite all of the boxes being ticked,’ she added.

The NEU said not including schools and colleges would likely lead to the need for even longer lockdowns in future

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson previously suggested students may be required to self-isolate at the end of the current university term in order to safely return home to be with their families at Christmas. 

Earlier this week it was reported that more than half of secondary schools have pupils self-isolating as a result of Covid-19.

About 6 per cent to 7 per cent of state school pupils did not attend class for coronavirus-related reasons on October 22, according to the Department for Education (DfE) statistics.

Approximately 26 per cent of schools, excluding those on half-term, said they had one or more pupils self-isolating due to potential contact with a Covid-19 case at school, compared with 21% the week before.

This represents 55 per cent of secondary schools and 20 per cent of primary schools.   

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