GAVIN WILLIAMSON: We must all move heaven and earth to get children back into the classroom 

I remain optimistic that with the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine, 2021 will be the year we overcome coronavirus. At the same time, as a dad, it is clear to me that while this takes place, I want my children to be at school.

Keeping our kids out of classrooms is damaging. We know that as parents and we know it from the data. It is for this reason that keeping schools open has been a national priority.

Naturally, as parents would expect, this includes taking a proportionate response and considering the clear damage that we know is caused to young people’s education and wellbeing by closing education. 

With the new variant, the goal posts have shifted as we fight this horrible virus, but I want to assure parents that we have been working throughout the holidays to make the return as safe as possible.

Writing in The Mail on Sunday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, urged teachers and parents to ‘move heaven and earth’, adding the young must not ‘bear the heaviest cost’ of the pandemic

Writing in The Mail on Sunday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, urged teachers and parents to ‘move heaven and earth’, adding the young must not ‘bear the heaviest cost’ of the pandemic

Writing in The Mail on Sunday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, urged teachers and parents to ‘move heaven and earth’, adding the young must not ‘bear the heaviest cost’ of the pandemic

This means pushing back the staggered start date for all secondary schools by one week.

It also means triggering our contingency plans, so that in some areas where there are high transmission rates of the virus or those rates are rising quickly, schools should offer face-to-face education to exam year groups, vulnerable and critical-worker children, and remote education to all other students – so no child misses out on education.

We have identified the areas where primary schools must move to this system from tomorrow and will do the same for secondary schools before pupils are due to return on the 18th.

Our fantastic teachers have already worked tirelessly to make schools Covid-secure, and it remains the case that schools are safe.

For secondary schools and colleges, we are also rolling out mass testing to make schools, the pupils attending them, and the wider community even safer. I want to be clear what this means: all secondary school students and staff will be offered tests before they go back to school – whether their school is open to all pupils or to some.

This kind of mass testing will help protect not just children and young people, it will benefit everyone in the community because it will break the chains of transmission that are making infection rates shoot up.

This in turn will make it safer for more children to physically return to school.

Teachers are not expected to carry out the tests themselves, and 1,500 members of the armed forces will provide support to schools and colleges in this important mission.

While this takes place, schools and colleges will stagger the return of their students.

Those in exam years will be educated remotely during the first week of term, and face-to-face beginning on January 11, with other secondary schools and college students returning full time on January 18, in areas where we have not had to apply the contingency framework.

Vulnerable children and the children of key workers should be educated face-to-face from the start of term in all circumstances.

For now, given how prevalent the virus is in London and after engagement with London leaders, primary schools in our capital will only open for vulnerable and critical worker children tomorrow.

We will continually review the data and allow more pupils to return as soon as possible.

During this time we are taking unprecedented action to ensure remote education is delivered to all children.

We will deliver over 50,000 laptops and tablets to schools across the country tomorrow, and over 100,000 in total during the first week of term. In total, we’ve delivered over 500,000 and are on our way to our target of nearly one million.

We are taking these measures because it is what we need to do to overcome and suppress the transmission of the virus in communities.

These decisions are not political calculations, they are concrete steps to support our children’s education, futures and dreams – which must not be put on hold.

For secondary schools and colleges, we are also rolling out mass testing. This means all secondary school students and staff will be offered tests before they go back to school (stock image)

For secondary schools and colleges, we are also rolling out mass testing. This means all secondary school students and staff will be offered tests before they go back to school (stock image)

For secondary schools and colleges, we are also rolling out mass testing. This means all secondary school students and staff will be offered tests before they go back to school (stock image)

The safety of teachers and pupils will always be paramount, but we must all move heaven and earth to get children back to the classroom where they best thrive.

Both of my daughters, one of whom is in an exam year, have had to self-isolate. I know how difficult the last year has been, because I have seen them miss being in the classroom, where they want to be.

So I want my children, and all children, to be able to get back to school and stay in class – we will continue to prioritise making this happen where we can.

In all of this, we must all face up to the fact that, unfortunately, there is a new variant of Covid and that this is spreading across the country.

But it remains our duty to provide a future for our children that is full of hope and opportunity.

This year, my admiration for teachers and all that they do has reached an even higher level, and it gives me faith in how we will continue to fight this virus.

The fight has already been a long one, and many have lost so much, but we must remain steadfast in our final push. As a nation we are in this together and we will overcome it together, as our country always does.

During this time, I remain determined to do all I can to protect our children, protect education and ensure the youngest in our society do not bear the heaviest cost while beating this virus.

I want my children, all children, to be able to go back to school

Left’s new bid to keep schools shut: Councils and unions unite to keep pupils out of lessons even though it’s the disadvantaged who’ll suffer most

  • Left-wing councils join revolt against Government plans to keep schools open
  • Brighton and Hove City Council demanded primary schools teach remotely 
  • Yesterday, UK’s largest teaching union advised members it was not safe to return

More Left-wing councils were last night joining the revolt against Government plans to keep schools open.

Brighton and Hove City Council followed eight authorities in London in demanding primaries teach remotely amid rising Covid cases.

Most primaries in England are expected to open their doors tomorrow, while secondary schools will reopen on a staggered basis later this month with plans to test every student weekly.

Yesterday, however, the UK’s largest teaching union advised members it was not safe to return to the classroom and called for a move to online teaching. 

CLASS WAR: The Government is keen to get children back to schools however, left-wing councils have joined revolt against Government plans as UK’s largest teaching union advised members it was not safe to return

CLASS WAR: The Government is keen to get children back to schools however, left-wing councils have joined revolt against Government plans as UK’s largest teaching union advised members it was not safe to return

CLASS WAR: The Government is keen to get children back to schools however, left-wing councils have joined revolt against Government plans as UK’s largest teaching union advised members it was not safe to return

The National Education Union, which has 450,000 members, said the Government was ‘failing to protect children, their families and our communities’, adding that their members had a legal right to refuse to work.

The move has put them on a collision course with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who said it was imperative that the nation’s children were back in class to stop them falling behind. 

Writing in The Mail on Sunday, the father-of-two has urged teachers and parents to ‘move heaven and earth’, adding the young must not ‘bear the heaviest cost’ of the pandemic.

He said: ‘Both of my daughters, one of whom is in an exam year, have had to self-isolate. I know how difficult the last year has been, because I have seen them miss being in the classroom, where they want to be. So I want my children, and all children, to be able to get back to school and stay in class – we will continue to prioritise making this happen where we can.’

The start of the new academic term has been mired in confusion as Covid rates continue to rise, driven by the new variant.

Recent notes from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) revealed scientists have warned that schools may need to be closed to bring down transmission.

But Children’s Minister Vicky Ford yesterday told MPs there was no evidence that the new strain caused more serious illness in either adults or children.

Senior Government sources said that Mr Williamson had tried to keep schools open but has been overruled by Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Michael Gove.

The pair have pushed for tighter measures until more people have been vaccinated, but critics accused them of ‘natural authoritarianism’.

Children’s Minister Vicky Ford yesterday told MPs there was no evidence that the new strain caused more serious illness in either adults or children

Children’s Minister Vicky Ford yesterday told MPs there was no evidence that the new strain caused more serious illness in either adults or children

Children’s Minister Vicky Ford yesterday told MPs there was no evidence that the new strain caused more serious illness in either adults or children 

Last week, Mr Williamson announced all primaries would return on Monday. Ten London boroughs were told to open their schools but after a revolt by eight Labour-led councils, Mr Williamson was forced into a U-turn. Now all schools in the capital will operate remote learning for the first two weeks.

The rebellion was led initially by Haringey, once dubbed the first ‘Corbyn council’ because of its large number of Left-wing Momentum councillors. Council leader Joseph Ejiofor said he would back head teachers who wanted to defy the Government and he was later followed by Harrow Council.

Brighton and Hove has now advised all primary schools to teach remotely until January 18.

Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, has accused the Left of politicising the issue saying: ‘This is about knocking the Tories. Keeping schools open should be non-negotiable.’ More than one million four to 11-year-olds will now start the academic term with lessons online.

In advising members to work from home, Dr Mary Bousted, the NEU’s joint general secretary, said: ‘If Government does not act to follow the science, we must.’

Her views were echoed by the NASUWT union.

Ministers are considering proposals to make teachers a higher priority in the vaccine roll-out as a way to keep physical classrooms open.

Plans for schools reopening differ across the four nations of the UK.In Scotland, most pupils will have online learning for the week of January 11. In Wales, schools are expected to provide face-to-face learning for the majority of their pupils by January 11.

And in Northern Ireland, secondary school years eight to 11 will be taught via remote learning throughout January while primary pupils will return to the classroom on January 11. 

Marquees in playgrounds as operation begins to start testing 3.4million pupils

By Max Aitchison and Julie Henry

Final preparations are under way to begin the mass testing of England’s 3.4 million secondary school students from January 11.

School halls are being hastily converted and in some cases marquees will be erected in playgrounds.

It is hoped the programme will eventually see all 11 to 18-year-olds at 3,456 state schools, as well as colleges and private schools, tested regularly. The aim is to spot asymptomatic coronavirus cases and prevent large numbers of students being sent home to self-isolate.

Final preparations are under way to begin the mass testing of England’s 3.4 million secondary school students from January 11 (stock image)

Final preparations are under way to begin the mass testing of England’s 3.4 million secondary school students from January 11 (stock image)

 Final preparations are under way to begin the mass testing of England’s 3.4 million secondary school students from January 11 (stock image)

From tomorrow, schools will begin to receive deliveries of up to 1,000 lateral flow device testing kits and PPE. The kits, which require either a nasal or throat swab, can produce results in under 30 minutes.

The Harris Federation, which has 28 secondary schools, will use gyms and marquees to administer the tests. CEO Sir Daniel Moynihan said: ‘There is an enormous gap between those who come from low income backgrounds and those that don’t.

‘The pandemic has made that worse. If we want a fairer society and levelling up, we need kids in school.’ Most secondary students will return on January 18, but 760,000 in exam years 11 and 13 go back on January 11. They will receive one test before their first lesson and a follow-up three days later. Staff will be tested once a week.

Anyone who tests positive will then take a more accurate PCR test before leaving the premises to self-isolate. They will not be allowed to get public transport home and their close contacts will be offered daily tests for seven days so they can stay in school or college rather than have to isolate at home. Ministers are also considering whether to extend the guidance on wearing masks in communal areas to inside secondary school classrooms.

Just under 1.5 per cent of pupils and teachers in English secondary schools tested positive for coronavirus in the week ending November 19, according to the Office for National Statistics, but since then the new Covid-19 variant has spread rapidly.

The testing scheme was initially optional, but made mandatory by the Government last Thursday. Children under 16 will need the signed consent of their parents for tests. Older students must agree to it themselves.

A trial scheme at Painsley Catholic College in Cheadle, Staffordshire, had a take-up rate of 80 per cent. CEO Steve Bell said: ‘It’s a lot to get your head around and the mass of documentation and demands can put anxiety levels through the roof, but that soon disappears when everyone realises it is very straightforward.’

Three schools in the nationwide Star Academies Trust also participated in a pilot scheme, recruiting exam invigilators and cleaners who had already been vetted.

Its CEO, Hamid Patel, said: ‘School leaders and teachers are understandably fatigued after many months of managing the crisis. The tight timetable has added to the challenges but it is manageable with creative thinking, planning and determination.’

Each school will have to deploy a team covering seven different roles: team leader, test assistants, processors, a Covid-19 coordinator, registration assistants, result recorders and cleaners. None of the roles require any clinical experience as most students will do the swabs themselves. But experts have criticised the reliability of self-administered tests, claiming they miss as many as half of cases. To counter that, some schools are enlisting the help of medical professionals.

Chris Ramsey, headmaster of Whitgift School in Croydon, South London, said: ‘It’s not fair to expect volunteers, teachers or the boys to take responsibility.’

The Government has set aside £78 million for the scheme, but there are warnings that will run out within weeks. Private schools must fund the project themselves.

Roughly 45,000 people will be needed to help with the tests and some schools will need paid staff to help. Some are advertising for ‘Covid testing assistants’ paid between £10 and £17-an-hour. Chris Parkinson, principal of Bosworth Academy in Leicester, said: ‘The biggest challenge is getting the workforce in place.’

The only guidance offered by the Government is a 30-page handbook alongside online sessions. Some 1,500 military personnel will offer support but only online or by phone.

Criticising the scheme, Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘Ministers need to remember that schools and colleges are educational institutions, not medical facilities, and it has to support this testing programme properly.’  

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