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Boris Johnsons bizarre back-to-school speech baffles pupils

Boris Johnson told bemused schoolchildren that it is politically acceptable to sing Rule Britannia and ruled that Harry Potter is not sexist as he told them how important it was they got back into classrooms today.

The maskless Prime Minister made the rambling remarks as he addressed a roomful of Year 7 pupils at a Leicestershire school as he pushed his plan to have all children back for the autumn term next week.

In an address lasting under seven minutes, he apologised for A-Level and GCSE exam results affected by a ‘mutant algorithm’ that forced an embarrassing Government U-turn last week.  

He was at Castle Rock school in Coalville, an academy school where youngsters started back today for ‘induction and familiarisation’ with coronavirus safety measures ahead of lessons starting next week.

Mr Johnson’s comments on Harry Potter came after its billionaire author JK Rowling was earlier this year engulfed by a row over transgender rights, although the books have not attracted mainstream claims of sexism.  

He told the students: ‘From now on, from getting back into school, the hours and days and weeks of this new term, you will experience things with an intensity and clarity, believe me, that is seldom repeated in your lives.

‘You’ll remember these days and weeks and months, you really really will. 

‘And when you have been struggling with something in the classroom or whatever, some concept that you cannot get, like the supine stem of confetti or nuclear fusion or is Harry Potter sexist? Answer: no, by the way. Is it politically acceptable to sing Rule Britannia? Yes … 

‘When you are struggling with complex questions, or something that you are worried about, somebody very probably a teacher, a brilliant teacher, will say something and a light will go on, the clouds will lift and you will never, ever forget that moment.

‘That moment is absolutely irreplaceable. It is invaluable and it can only happen in school.’ 

The Scottish writer revealed she was sexually assaulted in her 20s and told of her scars of domestic violence from her first marriage as she spoke out after being accused of transphobia.

The author, 54, was hit by what she described as ‘relentless attacks’ after she took issue with an online article ‘people who menstruate’.

She tweeted to her 14.5m followers in June: ‘I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’

Her remarks also led to a backlash from stars including Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter in the film franchise of the series, and Eddie Redmayne, who stars in Ms Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts films.

Emma Watson, who played Hermione in the Harry Potter films, also criticised Ms Rowling in a series of tweets.

The Prime Minister today thanked pupils for their efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus, saying: ‘We have the number of deaths way down, we have the number of hospital admissions way, way down and it’s thanks to you and your sacrifice that we have protected the NHS and saved literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives.

‘No previous generation of pupils has ever done anything like this.’

Now, he said, ‘the risk to your health is not from Covid because, after all, statistically speaking, your chances of suffering from that disease are very, very low’.

‘The greatest risk you face now is of continuing to be out of school.’

Regarding the recent exam fiasco he added: ‘I’m afraid your grades were almost derailed by a mutant algorithm.

‘I know how stressful that must have been for pupils up and down the country.

‘I’m very, very glad that it has finally been sorted out.’

But  Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, accused the Prime Minister of trying to ‘shrug away’ the A-level and GCSE results.

He said: ‘It is brazen of the Prime Minister to idly shrug away a disaster that his own Government created. Parents, students, teachers and heads will be horrified to see the leader of this country treat his own exams fiasco like some minor passing fad.

‘The public will not easily forget the emotional rollercoaster of this year’s results season. It is certain to put a long-lasting dent in the Government’s reputation on education.’

Teachers have warned the PM his face masks U-turn risks creating chaos in schools amid fears pupils will bully each other over their choice of covering.

The Government last night announced that face masks will be compulsory in the communal areas of secondary schools in parts of England which are subject to local lockdowns.

A decision on whether to wear masks in non-lockdown area schools will be left to individual head teachers.

The change in policy came after days of ministers and Downing Street insisting there were no plans to change the guidance in England which had said masks were not necessary if all other hygiene measures were adhered to.

But Mr Johnson’s hand appeared to be forced after Nicola Sturgeon said secondary school pupils in Scotland will be required to wear a mask when travelling between lessons.

The timing of the U-turn has prompted anger – schools in England are due to reopen next week – with teachers warning the wearing of masks could cause ‘mayhem’. 

The Prime Minister was accused of ducking personal responsibility for the exams fiasco after sacking the senior official at the Department for Education and blaming the debacle on a ‘mutant algorithm’.

The Prime Minister acknowledged the stress caused by the situation – which eventually resulted in a U-turn with A-level and GCSE grades in England awarded based on teachers’ assessments rather than the algorithm.

The Department for Education announced that permanent secretary Jonathan Slater will stand down because ‘the Prime Minister has concluded that there is a need for fresh official leadership’.

The announcement came a day after Sally Collier resigned from her role as head of exams regulator Ofqual. 

Jonathan Slater has been effectively removed from his post and will leave on September 1, it was announced today, 24 hours after Ofqual chief executive Sally Collier resigned from her post in the wake of the grading U-turn.

It means that of the people in the top positions overseeing the grading for exams that were not sat because of coronavirus, only Education Secretary Gavin Williamson remains in his post despite numerous calls for him to go.

Boris Johnson has resisted pressure to get rid of his bumbling minister, with suggestions that the former chief whip, who worked on his leadership election campaign, ‘knows where the bodies are buried’. 

In a three-paragraph statement posted online today, a Cabinet Office spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister has concluded that there is a need for fresh official leadership at the Department for Education. 

‘Jonathan Slater has therefore agreed that he will stand down on September 1, in advance of the end of his tenure in Spring 2021.

‘Susan Acland-Hood, currently interim second permanent secretary, will take over as Acting Permanent Secretary. A permanent successor to replace Jonathan Slater will be appointed in the coming weeks.’ 

Mr Slater is the latest senior civil servant to be ousted by the Government under Mr Johnson.

Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill is also stepping down, as is Simon McDonald at the Foreign Office. And Philip Rutnam stepped down amid a bullying row with Priti Patel in February. 

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: ‘Under this Government civil servants have time and time again taken the fall for the incompetence and failures of Ministers.’

Dave Penman, leader of the FDA union which represents senior public servants, said: ‘If it wasn’t clear before, then it certainly is now – this administration will throw civil service leaders under a bus without a moment’s hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability.’

Relations between Number 10 and Whitehall have been strained, with Mr Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings backing a major shake-up of the civil service.

Mr Penman said: ‘After this Government’s continuous anonymous briefings to the press, trust between ministers and civil servants is already at an all-time low and this will only damage it further.’

The first pupils have returned to lessons in locked-down Leicester without masks – after a Government U-turn made them mandatory in common areas.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused by Labour of ‘passing the buck’ after an announcement Tuesday night.

Individual headteachers will have to decide whether to make face coverings compulsory in school corridors in non-locked down areas of England.

Liam Powell, headteacher of Manor High School in Oadby, Leicestershire, said he had decided to allow voluntary mask-wearing.

At Manor High, which has 900 pupils on its roll, Mr Powell has led a school which was initially part of Leicester’s local lockdown, before the Oadby and Wigston borough – on the city’s border – was removed, during an easing of measures.

Had it stayed inside the lockdown zone, face coverings would be mandatory for his pupils in corridors and communal areas, according to the new Government guidance. 

Schools across Leicestershire, including locked-down Leicester, are going back this week ahead of the majority of schools in England. They traditionally break up for summer a week earlier. 

During a visit to a Leicester school, the Prime Minister said in coronavirus ‘hot spot’ areas ‘it probably does make sense in confined areas outside the classroom to use a face covering in the corridor and elsewhere’.

But he said wearing masks inside the classroom would be ‘nonsensical’, reported the BBC.  

Manor High’s catchment means many of the children’s parents are medical professionals employed at the city’s three hospitals; Leicester Royal, Leicester General and Glenfield.

Many children turned up wearing masks to collect GCSE results and again for their first day back for the new term.

Mr Powell, speaking of his pupils choosing to wear masks to school, said: ‘We had to have a response to that. One option was to say: ‘Don’t wear a mask, we forbid it’; another was to say: ‘It’s compulsory, you must wear it.’

‘A third one was to say: ‘Actually we are compliant, we are going to give you the option to do it.’ Actually, that turned out to be national policy as of last night.’ 

The change in policy came after days of ministers and Downing Street insisted there were no plans to adapt the guidance in England. It had said masks were not necessary if all other hygiene measures were adhered to.  

But Mr Johnson’s hand appeared to be forced after Nicola Sturgeon said secondary school pupils in Scotland will be required to wear a mask when travelling between lessons. 

The Government in Northern Ireland will also be recommending the wearing of masks between classes, while Wales has left the decision to headteachers. 

The timing of the U-turn has prompted anger – schools in England are due to reopen next week – with teachers warning the wearing of masks could cause ‘mayhem’. 

They have cited fears of increased bullying, of pupils wearing dirty reused masks and of it being harder to challenge bad behaviour in corridors because it may be unclear which children are responsible. 

Teachers also said they had been left ‘dizzy from all of the U-turns that have happened this summer’. 

Mr Powell said the ever-shifting nature of the Covid-19 pandemic meant he and other education leaders had to forecast what changes may come and be ready with a ‘plan B’. 

He added: ‘I read the Secretary of State’s announcement and he was quoting and responding to what the World Health Organisation (WHO) were saying about masks.

‘We had looked beyond the horizon to what was happening in France and Germany and nearer to home, what was happening in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

‘So it seemed a natural conclusion that England may well go in the same direction as well.’ 

Mr Powell said he had not felt ‘isolated’ from Government advice but that more communication between all levels of government and the teaching profession ‘makes us all more responsive’.

The head, whose Year 7 and Year 11 cohorts returned to lessons on Tuesday, was speaking amid criticism from some teaching and school leaders’ unions of the Government’s advice on face coverings.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said ministers were following the ‘best scientific and medical advice’, adding it was not necessary for face coverings to be mandatory in all schools across the country.

But in a message to members of school leaders’ union NAHT, general secretary Paul Whiteman said it would be ‘prudent’ for masks to be used more widely. 

Mr Powell said he did ‘not feel isolated’ with Government advice ‘frequently’ sent to him via emails.

Idea-sharing generated by a local peer group of headteachers has also helped. It sparked a move to whole-day single-topic lessons, which cut the need for pupils to move between classrooms.

The school has also introduced hand sanitisers and a one-way system.

Mr Powell has some sympathy for those in national and local government, adding: ‘It’s been a summer of great change. But what I think is that in each case the right thing was done.

‘And I do understand it is not always possible to plan ahead in the way one might like.’

Asked if the Government could have provided better support to schools, or more timely advice over issues such as face-covering policy, he said: ‘I think there’s a balancing act.’

He added the ‘whole system works best under a national, global emergency – a pandemic – when professionals all talk to each other.’

‘I think it’s really important that government – local, national – and the profession maintain a constant dialogue,’ he said.

‘Because things changed rapidly on the floor and there’s stuff we need to feed back.

‘Things change in real time.’ He added constant communication ‘makes us all more responsive’.

Mr Powell said centralised decision-making only helped so much, adding ‘local need’ had a key role to play for schools to quickly respond to conditions in their areas.

He said: ‘It is useful to have that advice coming centrally, but having freedom to respond to what is right for our local setting as well.

‘I think there’s a balancing act.’

Mr Powell also said it was time for Government to start thinking about schools dealing with the continuing presence of Covid-19 into next year.

He said: ‘If we go into another lockdown, how are we going to do our mock GCSEs amid that?

‘If the lockdown is later in the academic year, we could be in the same position again with the GCSEs exams. We need an online form of assessment.’

He added: ‘As long as we keep learning and safety as our two key priorities, I don’t think we’ll go wrong.’

It comes as the most senior civil servant in the Department of Education, permanent secretary Jonathan Slater, was asked to step down. 

The PM said there was ‘a need for fresh leadership’ following the scandal that saw an algorithm significantly lower pupils GCSE and A-level results.

Following criticism from students, headteachers and a backlash by Tory MPs, the Government announced A-level and GCSE grades would be based on teachers’ assessments rather than a controversial algorithm devised by regulator Ofqual. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson had previously defended the ‘robust’ system, which saw almost 40 per cent of A-level grades reduced from teachers’ predictions.

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