Starmer calls for unity to open schools ‘as soon as possible’
Social mobility experts and scientists warned ministers of lockdown impact on mental and physical health
SIR KEIR STARMER’S children have attended school throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the Labour leader has revealed, as he urges unions, parents and the Government to work together to get more pupils back in classrooms as soon as possible.
The Labour leader says in an interview with The Daily Telegraph that he knows the importance of keeping children in education because his son and daughter have both attended local state schools in his north London constituency during the lockdown because Sir Keir’s wife Victoria is a key worker in the National Health Service.
The Prime Minister is struggling against a combination of more than 50 councils and teachers’ unions refusing to agree to a partial reopening of English primary schools from June 1.
But Sir Keir says: “Our children have been in school throughout [the coronavirus crisis]. It’s a reminder that this perception that schools are shut at the moment, and the question of whether we open them, is wrong. The question is, can we increase the numbers of children going back into school? I want that to happen as soon as it can. But, of course, it’s got to be safe.”
The Labour leader adds: “Rather than accentuating the differences here, the Prime Minister should pull a task force together, and say, ‘Right, we are going to lead from the front.’
“If the Prime Minister said, ‘I’ll set up a task force of teaching unions, parents, local authorities and government, everybody else who needs to be around the table, to put your shoulder to the wheel, let’s get on with this,’ then I would certainly support that.” While not overtly backing the National Education Union, which has set five tests that must be met before any return – covering lower Covid-19 cases, a national plan for social distancing, better access to testing, protocols for outbreaks and protection for vulnerable staff are satisfied – Sir Keir describes them as “perfectly reasonable tests that can be met”.
Sarah Knapton, Camilla Turner
CHILDREN will suffer lifelong damage because of lockdown, ministers were warned ahead of the decision to open schools, it has emerged.
Yesterday, documents were released detailing the evidence seen by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergency’s (Sage) on whether it was safe to allow pupils to return to the classroom.
One report by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group of Modelling (SPI-M) and the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) warned of the wider impact of lockdown to children’s physical and mental health, education and development.
The authors said: “A cohort of children have experienced a shock to their education, which will persist and affect their educational and work outcomes for the rest of their lives. The current lockdown may lead to an increase in adverse childhood experiences, for example: domestic violence, poor parental mental health, child neglect or abuse.”
Although the authors said some children “will adapt and be just fine” they warned that the vulnerable and poorest would be hit the hardest.
Many would suffer from lack of outside space and opportunities for play and exercise, as well as loneliness, lack of socialisation, lack of physical activity and hunger, they said.
“Educational outcomes are seriously at risk, especially for disadvantaged pupils,” the report authors state.
“It is assumed that most students have access to devices and the internet, though an important minority do not.
It cannot be assumed that all parents have the knowledge, confidence, resources and time to support learning opportunities for children.”
Seven in 10 parents said their children’s mental health had been affected, the papers show, and one third said it had damaged physical health.
The Government is hoping to get Year Six, Year One and Reception pupils back to school in the first wave in June but has faced resistance from teaching unions who argue it is not safe for teachers or pupils. However, the papers include a review of studies from University College London showing that those aged under 20 had a 56 per cent less chance of being infected.
Prof Lee Elliot Major, an expert in social mobility at Exeter University, added: “The longer we leave the school return, the bigger the challenge in getting them back up to speed and the greater likelihood we’ll face of a decline in social mobility.
“It will be a huge task for teachers to enable children to catch up when they do return to school, and the real fear is that some children will suffer permanent education scarring.”
Modelling of various scenarios for reopening schools were carried out ahead of the decision, and show only a small increase in the overall infection rate for the population.
Bringing back Reception pupils and a handful of year groups is likely to raise the reproduction (R) value by less than 0.3, modelling shows, although the specific return strategy set out by the Government has not itself been modelled.
Government scientific experts said they were still unsure what role schools played in the R rate and are basing their R rate figures on an imaginary scenario where opening schools entirely would raise the R rate by 1.
Teacher unions welcomed the publication of Sage’s evidence, but remained opposed to plans for schools that suggested Boris Johnson was taking a “cavalier attitude” towards children. Dr
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Education Union said: “We are surprised that the wider opening of schools proposed by Boris Johnson has not been modelled by Sage. This points to a cavalier attitude towards the nation’s children.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head teachers, said that support for schools to reopen on a fixed date continues to vanish.
There is also uncertainty about a June reopening because government experts say test, track and trace systems would need to be in place. It is thought they will not be ready in time.
Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, said there was no evidence that infections were low enough, or that contact tracing was in place.
But Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, said that the phased return has been a “carefully considered decision based on the best scientific and medical advice”.
‘It cannot be assumed that all parents have the time, knowledge and resources to support learning’