Headteachers of primary schools across England have accused ministers of treating pupils and teachers as “guinea pigs” and taking risks with safety by aiming to bring back pupils from three school years in just three weeks’ time — and fully open primary schools later in June.
Guidance from the Department for Education released on Monday night states that schools should split their classes in half in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with no more than 15 pupils per small group plus one teacher and, if needed, a teaching assistant.
The government says primary age children can’t be expected to stay 2 metres apart but contact should be reduced as much as possible — so break times and drop-off and pickup times should be staggered, and more lessons should be outdoors.
But school leaders have told BuzzFeed News that the plans will be incredibly difficult to implement in practice, and raised fears there was not enough scientific evidence to ensure staff and pupils could stay safe.
One headteacher of a primary school in London, who asked not to be named, said: “They are literally treating us as guinea pigs. How do you find the space to split pupils into classes of no more than 15, and staff that, and stagger break times, toilet visits, arrival, and departure at school?
“There's a clear move to take risks with staff and pupil safety, but with precautions to try and limit the spread beyond each group.”
The government guidance states that any school that can’t achieve small groups, because there aren’t enough classrooms, should discuss options with their local authority or trust. “Solutions might involve children attending a nearby school,” it says.
Under the plans, which are conditional on the rate of infection, certain year groups will return to school on June 1 — nursery (ages 4 and under), reception (ages 4–5), Year 1 (ages 5–6), and Year 6 (ages 10–11). These years have been prioritised because they are “key transition years”.
For many primary schools with nurseries attached, these years make up more than half of their pupils in total. Secondary schools will not reopen until the autumn, although pupils facing exams next year will get some “face-to-face contact” in the coming weeks.
Prime minister Boris Johnson also said on Monday: “Our ambition, and I stress that this is conditional, is for all primary school pupils to return to the classroom for a month before the summer break.”
With most schools breaking up in the week of July 20, that would mean all pupils would need to return to primary school by Monday, June 22. “I can't see it happening,” the headteacher from London told us.
Another school leader from Liverpool said the idea that primaries would be open for a month had not been properly thought through: “They just don’t have the space to have them all in at a distance.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) union, told the education select committee on Tuesday that school leaders wanted to get their pupils back into school as soon as possible.
But he said there were genuine fears that the plans were not safe, and not enough was known about the risks of transferring coronavirus between children and from children to adults. The NAHT wants the government to publish the scientific advice that led to its decision.
Meanwhile a poll of 1,024 parents in England, commissioned by the National Education Union, found that 84% believe children should only return to school when the scientific evidence shows it is safe. Some 59% said teachers should wear personal protective equipment (PPE).
Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, said: “With an aspiration to open schools more widely in less than three weeks from now, the prime minister is squandering a great deal of parental goodwill.
“He needs to act fast to reassure unions, school staff, and parents that when schools do open it will only be when our shared and widespread concerns for personal safety are fully met.”
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “I know how hard schools, colleges, early years settings, and parents are working to make sure children and young people can continue to learn at home, and I cannot thank them enough for that.
“But nothing can replace being in the classroom, which is why I want to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so. The latest scientific advice indicates it will be safe for more children to return to school from 1 June, but we will continue to limit the overall numbers in school and introduce protective measures to prevent transmission.
“This marks the first step towards having all young people back where they belong — in nurseries, schools, and colleges — but we will continue to be led by the scientific evidence and will only take further steps when the time is right.”