Government and unions ordered to ‘stop squabbling’ as back to school plans descend into chaos

Ministers and teachers’ unions have been told to “stop squabbling” as Boris Johnson’s plan to get pupils back to school next month descended into chaos.

Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield called for the two rowing sides to find a solution, warning it would be “extremely damaging” to keep children at home much longer.

The Government plans to reopen schools to pupils in Reception and Year 1 and Year 6 from June 1 at the earliest.

But unionists insist the move would put teachers, children and parents at risk of becoming infected by coronavirus.

Anne Longfield called for the two sides should come together (REX/Shutterstock)

The British Medical Association made a surprise intervention in the heated clash on Friday and backed teaching unions over “conflicting” evidence that schools would be safe .

Crunch talks between unionists and the Government’s scientific advisers on Friday also seemingly did little to break the stalemate as the NASUWT teaching union said it raised “more questions than answers” and hit out at “flimsy” science.

Now Ms Longfield has called on the unions and ministers and agree to a safe, phased return to school before the summer along with “rigorous” Covid-19 testing of staff, pupils and parents.

The Oasis Trust plans to reopen all of its 35 schools from June 1 (PA)

“I am disappointed that the debate about when some primary school kids can return has descended into a squabble between the Government and the teaching unions,” she told the Telegraph.

“We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school.

“It’s time to stop squabbling and agree [on] a staggered, safe return that is accompanied by rigorous testing of teachers, children and families.”

She also urged the sector to consider using school buildings for summer lessons and family support after schools break up in July.

Citing the “overwhelming” evidence that prolonged absence from school is damaging to childrens’ mental health and social mobility, she added: “All sides need to show a greater will to work together in the interests of children.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said it was “vital” schools reopen and accused unions of “scaremongering”.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said schools will reopen in a phased way (PA)

But Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary, said following Friday’s meeting: “The meeting that we had earlier this afternoon frankly was not conclusive in relation to the evidence base to support the proposal for the wider reopening of schools. That evidence is flimsy at best, in terms of the international comparisons being used.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Courtney, joint secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said “very many questions that were asked were not addressed” during the meeting.

New research from the children’s commissioner found that only three out of 57 nurseries attached to NHS hospitals in England have reported a confirmed case of Covid-19 among children.

Teaching unions have warned it is not safe to reopen schools in June (PA)

Liverpool city council became the first to publicly defy the Government plan, telling parents in a letter that it “cannot” reopen schools on June 1.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the plan, adding:“I wouldn’t support a proposal to start to reopen schools unless it was safe to do so, and it is safe to do so.”

Dr Jennie Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said the risk to teachers and pupils was “very small and diminishing with time” and warned of “very important” long-term health risks to children if they stay at home.

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said: “Getting children back to school and nurseries is in their best interests and all those working in education have a duty to work together to do so.”

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