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Gavin Williamson

Gavin Williamson. Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / cropped from original / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Just three weeks after the government's u-turn on schools, it is again pushing to do the same thing all over again, writes Terina Hine

It has been just three weeks since children were sent into school for one day, since Boris Johnson claimed “schools were safe” only for them to be closed 24 hours later. A day which clearly put lives at risk.

Yet here we are again, with the drum beat for schools to reopen echoing around Whitehall and reverberating in the newsrooms.

On the front page of today’s Mirror there is an emotional plea from children: "We just want to go back to school,” they say, while the Times reports government advisers believe primary schools should be safe to reopen after half-term, and the Telegraph claims that Boris Johnson is “fighting” to get schools back before Easter.

Labour is joining in, urging the government to commit to reopening schools and colleges first when lockdown restrictions are eased. Which is government policy anyway. Labour suggests the government provide a reopening plan - yet appear unable put forward one of their own.

No one doubts that children are desperate to go back to school - my own son certainly is. No one doubts that educational divisions are widening, that children’s well being is severely impacted, that parents are struggling to meet the challenges of homeschooling, caring and working.

But to want things to return to ‘normal’ is not the same as pushing for that to happen when it is clearly unsafe.

And schools are not safe. In December school-aged pupils were the most infected of all age groups; between September and December the levels of infection amongst secondary pupils had multiplied by 75.

The NEU proposed an education recovery plan way back in June - the government ignored it.

The NEU 10-point plan included utilising public spaces for schools, reducing class sizes, providing equipment for those without access to online learning and for rotas to be introduced so that all pupils have access to education both at school and at home.

If those in power had listened to those at the chalkface last summer we would be in a very different place today - and if they cared about the young that is exactly what they would have done.

Instead, they listened to the likes of UsForThem, a supposed “parent-led” pressure group established in May that has lobbied to keep schools open throughout the pandemic. A group which has also promoted herd immunity and dangerous Covid conspiracy theories.

UsForThem has friends in high places. Its communications strategy is led by Ed Barker, previously a key player in Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, with an extensive network of connections among ministers and Tory MPs.

The group had the support of Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, in their campaign against mask wearing in schools, and their current reopen the schools campaign has gained the support of the Covid Recovery Group of MPs. According to the Guardian, UsForThem met with civil servants at the Department for Education (DfE) on two occasions prior to announcements being made on coronavirus policies for schools.

Other parent lobby groups have not been so lucky. The far larger group, United Against Unsafe Schools, have made multiple attempts to speak to ministers and the DfE to no avail.

Yes, the lockdown is working, covid case numbers are falling, and all the time the most vulnerable are being vaccinated. But over 50% of those struggling in intensive care are aged between 50 and 69 years old - on the current timetable vaccinations for the 65-69 age group will have only just begun by March. And once vaccines are administered to all the vulnerable and all teachers and all the over 50s - what about their second dose?

We have the worst Covid death rate in the world - the ONS data show 104,000 have died from Covid-19 in the UK - and still they will not learn.

The NEU and other trade unions, parents and campaign groups must not allow the reckless actions of a few well-connected lobbyists and a minority of right-wing Tory MPs take us backwards. None of us want kids out of school, but none of us want this endless cycle of lockdowns and an ever-increasing death rate either. What we need is for teachers to be listened to and a radical zero-Covid plan.




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