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Teaching union ‘tries to sabotage school reopening plan with impossible list’ of 200 safety demands

Teacher union bosses have been accused of trying to throttle government plans to reopen schools next month with a 200-long list of safety demands.

The National Education Union has provided its half a million members with a ‘checklist’ of Covid-secure measures which its institution should be enforcing.

If these demands are not met, and concerns are not acted upon, the union urges staff to ‘escalate’ their quarrel.   

It comes as Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, also warned that schools could teach pupils on a ‘week on, week off’ basis if the government continued to demand that all children return to school by September. 

Mr Barton told The Daily Telegraph: ‘If you want to limit the number of children on site or travelling to and from school, a big part of that is using rotas and the obvious way to do it is week on, week off.’

The general secretary added that leadership teams would be drawing up their own plans in the absence of clear guidance from the government.   

He added: ‘The majority of leadership teams will be thinking about different scenarios and how they can get some children to school. In the absence of clear guidance from the Government, leaders are making their own contingency plans.’ 

Last night MPs ripped into the 25-page ‘wrecker’s charter’ by the NEU which they said could thwart the Prime Minister’s ‘national priority’ for classes to resume. 

Education select committee chair Robert Halfon MP branded the criteria ‘impossible’ and told the Sun on Sunday: ‘It is incredible not one of these 200 nitpicking questions asks the most important thing of all – what’s best for the kids?’ 

The demands, which the NEU claim to have adopted from Department for Education guidance, include questions such as: ‘Will lidded bins with double bagging be available in every classroom and work area?’

Another asks: ‘Has the school agreed that any staff required to quarantine in September as a result of holidays booked prior to the Government’s quarantine announcement will be able to work at home or be allowed paid leave of absence?’ 

The unions were blamed for blocking ministers’ initial efforts to reopen schools before the summer holidays after expressing deep safety concerns. 

Members of the Conservative party also accused Labour of  ‘playing politics’ by refusing to say unequivocally that it is ‘safe’ to return to school.  

Amanda Milling, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, said: ‘Once again, Labour refuse to take a stance and back our plans to get kids back to school in September.

‘Sir Keir Starmer won’t stand up to the unions, won’t take a position and shows more interest in playing politics than in our children’s wellbeing.’

But today NEU president Amanda Martin said she believed the union had been ‘on the right side of history’ and stood by the checklist.

She told Times Radio: ‘This is people’s safety. What costs safety? I as someone who works in Portsmouth and received the information from my Portsmouth school have had those checklists back where governors and heads and staff have worked together. 

‘It’s about ensuring confidence, it’s about ensuring safety and if that means that’s going through those 25 pages and have conversations about ‘what would happen if this happened?’, then that’s exactly what we need to do and plan, planning is essential.’ 

Quizzed about whether the NEU is given teachers the green light to go back to lessons next month, Ms Martin added: ‘We have said that schools should be ready to open in September.

‘We have a number of meetings in the last week of August, we have asked our reps to look at the brand-new checklist that came out right at the end of summer term and we need to see what it means in regards to the scientists. 

‘We have asked the scientists to give us some modelling so we can make sure schools can be as Covid safe as possible.’

She added: ‘The fact that the government are coming out this morning saying we’re a national priority is a really positive thing’.   

Schools minister Nick Gibb today said he had been consulting with the unions, although said they did not always agree.

Care Minister Helen Whately today said it was a ‘national priority’ to get children back to school in autumn.

Ms Whately told Sky News: ‘Getting our children back to school this autumn is absolutely a national priority, we’re determined to see children back to school.

‘We had to close down schools back in March as part of the lockdown, I know that teachers and parents have made huge efforts to continue children’s education from home.

‘But it’s not the same as children being in school and sadly we have seen children from disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to fall behind during this time, so it’s essential that we have children back at school this autumn.’

She added: ‘Schools will be a safe environment for children to be taught in, of course in the event a child has a temperature or any type of symptoms, it’s very important they get a rapid test.

‘Schools will be provided with home test kits.’

In the checklist’s preamble, the document states: ‘Union reps should seek meetings with school leaders in order to discuss plans for full opening. 

‘School leaders’ difficult responsibility will be assisted by comprehensive union input. Consultation must start as soon as possible and allow for improvements to be made to those plans. 

‘If unfortunately there is a either a failure to consult, or members’ concerns are not being addressed, then this should be escalated.’ 

It came as a landmark coronavirus study found the risk of transmission in classrooms is minimal, ratcheting up pressure on the Education Secretary to fully reopen schools in September.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: ‘The education and care of our children is a national priority. Ahead of the full return of all pupils to school in September, we are continuing to do everything in our power to ensure all children can be back in their classrooms safely, as this is the best place for them to be for their education, development and wellbeing.

‘We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice. The latest research which is expected to be published later this year – one of the largest studies on the coronavirus in schools in the world – makes it clear there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school.

‘There is also growing confidence among parents about their children returning. This is down to the hard work of school staff across the country who are putting in place a range of protective measures to prepare to welcome back all pupils at the start of term.’

Boris Johnson is understood to have warned that Gavin Williamson’s ‘head will be on the chopping block’ if pupils are not back in lessons next month.  

The Prime Minister has declared resuming classes a ‘national priority’ and is planning an advertising blitz to urge anxious parents to send their child back to school. 

A Downing Street source said the PM believed the harm being done to children’s education prospects and mental health by not attending school was more damaging than the risks posed to them by the virus. 

Mr Johnson wrote in an article for The Mail on Sunday: ‘This pandemic isn’t over, and the last thing any of us can afford to do is become complacent. 

‘But now that we know enough to reopen schools to all pupils safely, we have a moral duty to do so.’

The PM also warned of the ‘spiralling economic costs’ of parents and carers being unable to work.

He added: ‘Keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible.’ 

His campaign was yesterday bolstered by encouraging scientific evidence which found a low threat of catching infection in schools.

But National Education Union deputy general secretary Avis Gilmore called for ministers to ‘be clear’ about support if a second wave of the virus strikes.

‘Robust track, trace and test alongside health and safety checks in schools and colleges are necessary,’ she said.

Government Sage adviser Professor Russell Viner outlined the forthcoming Public Health England study and stressed that reopening schools was ‘imperative’.

‘A new study that has been done in UK schools confirms there is very little evidence that the virus is transmitted in schools,’ he told the Sunday Times.

‘This is some of the largest data you will find on schools anywhere. Britain has done very well in terms of thinking of collecting data in schools.  

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and a member of Sage, said studies had suggested children were ‘very minor players in the transmission overall’ of the virus. 

Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust – who is advising the Government’s coronavirus response, said the ‘brief window’ before schools reopen must be ‘used wisely’ otherwise new restrictions will be needed.

He wrote in the Observer: ‘Most urgently, we need to ramp up testing. We are not where we need to be. We must improve contact tracing, so we’re identifying more cases and providing better, faster data locally.

‘If we don’t, we may not be able to reopen schools without introducing new restrictions elsewhere. These are the trade-offs we face – if we do not act now.’

Greater Manchester’s Mayor has said that getting children back into classrooms should be a top priority.

However, Andy Burnham told BBC Breakfast on Monday that the test and trace programme had to be better to give parents the confidence to send their children back to school.

He added: ‘It’s got to be the top priority, getting kids back to school, because they have had huge disruption this year.

‘We have got to make every arrangement possible so that people can have that peace of mind.

‘But it does point then at the test and trace system, it isn’t yet good enough and I am saying to the Government we need to work together to get this system right over August so that we can then both of us give that confidence to those parents.’

By JACK ELSOM and JOE MIDDLETON FOR MAILONLINE and GLEN OWEN POLITICAL EDITOR FOR THE MAIL ON SUNDAY

A landmark coronavirus study has found the risk of transmission in classrooms is minimal, ratcheting up pressure on the Education Secretary to fully reopen schools in September.

Boris Johnson is understood to have warned that Gavin Williamson’s ‘head will be on the chopping block’ if pupils are not back in lessons next month.

The Prime Minister has declared resuming classes a ‘national priority’ and is planning an advertising blitz to urge anxious parents to send their child back to school.

His campaign was yesterday bolstered by encouraging scientific evidence which found a low threat of catching infection in schools.

Government Sage adviser Professor Russell Viner outlined the forthcoming Public Health England study and stressed that reopening schools was ‘imperative’.

‘A new study that has been done in UK schools confirms there is very little evidence that the virus is transmitted in schools,’ he told the Sunday Times.

‘This is some of the largest data you will find on schools anywhere. Britain has done very well in terms of thinking of collecting data in schools.’  

Labour, the unions, and the Children’s Commissioner have all today voiced support for the principle of schools reopening in September.

But thorny issues such as routine testing and the wearing of masks remain – which were both today slapped down by the schools minister.

As the reopening of schools was bumped to the top of ministers’ agenda: 

Prof Viner, also president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said keeping schools shut would take a further toll on both young people’s academic attainment and mental health.  

Mr Johnson outlined similar concerns in an article for today’s Mail on Sunday where he heralded the resuming of lessons a ‘moral duty’ and ‘crucial’ for pupils’ ‘welfare, their health and for their future.’

He wrote: ‘The education of our children is crucial for their welfare, their health and for their future. That is why it is a national priority to get all pupils back into school in September.

‘The message I have given to Ministers and civil servants is this: we can do it – and we will do it. Social justice demands it.’

He spoke of the ‘uplifting sight… as millions of parents rose to the challenge of educating their children’ amid the added pressures of lockdown, but said that had to end. 

The PHE study, which tested more than 20,000 pupils and 100 teachers, is hoped to allay the concerns of wary teacher unions, which thwarted ministers’ initial attempts to resume classes for fears of staff catching the virus.

Union bosses were last night accused of ‘nit-picking’ after releasing an exhaustive list of 200 safety demands. 

The National Education Union has urged its 450,000 teachers to ‘escalate’ action if their schools do not adhere to their 200-strong Covid-secure checklist.

The demands included assurances the working day will not be lengthened, children waiting to be picked up to be kept isolated, and support for staff suffering workload anxiety. 

Education select committee chair Robert Halfon MP last night hit out at the demands and told the Sun on Sunday: ‘It is incredible not one of these 200 nitpicking questions asks the most important thing of all – what’s best for the kids?’ 

But today Amanda Martin, co-president of the NEU, said there is no price on safety, and pointed out that they had been urging their members to plan for the reopening in September. 

She told Times Radio: ‘I think the NEU right from the beginning has been on the right side of history by saying schools should remain open to key worker kids and the most vulnerable.

‘We have half a million members, we have had schools open all the way through lockdown and we have been supporting them with checklists… We have said schools should be ready to open in September.’

She said her union has requested information from Sage and the government for a risk assessment about reopening schools in September.   

Prof Viner, a member of Sage, insisted reopening schools was a non-negotiable, even if it meant sacrificing other freedoms as a trade-off.  

The desperate need to prioritse education was endorsed by Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, who said in the event of future lockdowns schools should not be closed as a default to save ‘disruption to the lives of adults’.

She today threw her weight behind Mr Johnson’s bullishness to reopen schools, even if it meant pubs were sacrificed. 

Speaking to Times Radio, she said: ‘Children have been out of schools for five months… There was a moment I thought children have been forgotten in the relaxation.

‘They must reopen and they must stay open so if there are future lockdowns they are the last to close and first to reopen.’

Quizzed if that meant people should be restricted from indoor drinking in pubs, she said: ‘I’ve talked about that when decisions need to be made in future lockdowns,  it makes absolute sense if there’s a limited amount of social interactions before infections are raised.’

She said she was ‘dismayed’ that theme parks and even zoos were opened before schools, but said she is pleased that the PM has bumped resuming lessons to the top of the government’s agenda. 

Ms Longfield said that regular testing should become ‘part and parcel’ of school life from next month.

She said: ‘I think it needs to be as regular as it needs to be for the infection to be caught… certainly not one-offs but regular occurrences so they’re part and parcel of the running of a school.’

But this was slapped down by schools minister Nick Gibb, who said only those who developed symptoms would be tested.

The minister this morning told Times Radio: ‘Anybody who shows symptoms in schools will be tested, it won’t be routine testing… the advice we have is it’s better when people show symptoms.

If they test positive the people that pupil has been in contact with will be self-isolating… Everything we do is led by the science… the priority for the new 90-minute tests has to be the new hospitals and laboraties, the measures we are putting in place, the hierarchy of controls is the most effective measures of the virus.’

On masks, he added: ‘These kind of issues will be up to head teachers, but there’s no need for masks to be worn within schools if the hierarchy of controls, the measures I have outlines, are in place.’

Labour expressed support for the reopening of schools in September, but surged the government to support teachers by bolstering the test and trace infrastructure. 

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: ‘I think it’s essential that schools open in September and that all pupils are expected to be back in the classrooms.

‘I do think the Government could be doing more to support them (teachers) particularly, for example, making sure we’ve got a really robust Test and Trace system in place.

‘The work is being done to make schools safe but more is needed to support those schools, they may need extra resources for example for extra clearing or to stagger the school day or to make sure children can travel to and fro safely.

‘The Government has a window between now and the beginning of September to get that right and it absolutely must do so.

‘It’s really, really important that we don’t write off a generation of Covid children – they need to be back in class, the whole of our futures depend on this.’  

Individual heads will be able to decide whether teachers can wear masks in lessons, the schools minister said yesterday.

Nick Gibb also rejected growing calls for regular routine coronavirus testing of staff and pupils.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said she would like to see everyone in schools tested once a week. She also said teachers and older children should be able to wear masks ‘if it makes them feel more reassured’.

It came after teaching unions urged Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to allow staff to use masks if they choose.

Department for Education guidance states that face coverings are not needed where pupils and staff mix in consistent ‘bubbles’.

Asked whether teachers should be allowed to wear masks if they wish to, Mr Gibb noted that the scientific advice was that there was no reason for staff or pupils to wear face coverings in school. But he added: ‘These kind of issues will be up to the head teachers.

‘But there is no need for mask-wearing within the school, provided that the hierarchy of controls… are in place.’

On testing, he said: ‘Anybody that shows symptoms in schools – teachers and pupils – will be prioritised.

‘Not routine testing. The advice we have is that it’s better to test when people actually show symptoms.’

It came as Professor Russell Viner, a member of the government advisory group Sage, said that one of the biggest studies into the risk of coronavirus spreading in schools will soon confirm there is ‘very little evidence’ that it is transmitted there.

The research by Public Health England looked at 20,000 pupils and teachers in 100 schools across England who were tested to monitor the spread of the disease up to the end of the summer term. 

It will be published later in the year.

A-level pupils whose marks are downgraded by computer face missing out on university places while exam boards sift through a flood of appeals, experts warned last night.

This year’s exams were cancelled because of coronavirus so marks will be based on teachers’ estimates of what entrants would have achieved.

But exam boards are expected to lower nearly 40 per cent of grades using a computerised marking scheme to ensure results are not significantly higher than previous years. This means tens of thousands of pupils will not achieve the marks they had hoped for when they get their A-level grades on Thursday.

As a result, they may not be able to attend their first-choice university unless they successfully appeal.

Those who appeal must be awarded a higher grade by September 7 to attend the university they have chosen. But the Daily Mail has learned that exam boards, which are in charge of appeals, have refused to commit to this timeframe. Instead, they have given themselves 42 days to resolve complaints – meaning the university term will have started before most cases are dealt with.

Many pupils, teachers and parents in England are nervous about this year’s results after last week’s debacle over the Scottish Higher exams.

In Scotland, 124,000 grades awarded by teachers were lowered, with the poorest entrants getting their marks downgraded at more than double the rate of the richest.

Last night Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the education select committee, said: ‘Our select committee report predicted a potential Wild West system which favours the well-heeled and the sharp-elbowed, and doesn’t appear fair.

‘It is absolutely vital that the appeals system is done quickly and efficiently, in the space of a couple of weeks, to ensure that students get their fair grades so they can progress to university.’

Pupils in England who are unhappy with their grades must rely on their schools to mount appeals for them, based on stringent criteria, potentially adding to the delays. Last night none of the ‘big three’ exams boards – AQA, OCR and Pearson Edexcel – provided assurances that it would be able to meet the September 7 deadline set by university admissions body Ucas.

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents the exam boards, said its members were ‘committed to completing appeals as quickly as possible’.

But it admitted grade appeals may take six weeks or longer. This means a complaint lodged on A-levels results day – and most will come later than this – does not have to be dealt with until September 24.

‘The awarding bodies aim to complete initial reviews within 42 calendar days of the receipt of the application,’ a JCQ handbook for head teachers states.

Neil Roskilly, chief executive of the Independent Schools Association, which represents more than 500 private schools, said: ‘Forty-two days is disappointing because the process will be simple.’ He said the JCQ had ‘buried’ this crucial detail at the foot of the document – and warned that the delay could also see youngsters who miss out on their grades fail to enrol in time for fresh exams in the autumn.

Those who are challenging their marks are encouraged to contact their university’s admission departments as soon as possible to discuss their position.

But Mr Roskilly said he was worried that middle-class ‘pushy parents’ would find it easier to negotiate than those from poorer backgrounds. ‘The universities… don’t have the set-up to fully consider a student’s academic record,’ he added.

In a recent consultation on appeals, one exam board warned England’s exams watchdog Ofqual: ‘While each initial review may not take a significant time to resolve, the volume of appeals may mean that the response to an appeal may not be swift.’

Labour education spokesman Kate Green said she was worried the appeals process was not ‘robust enough’.

Ofqual has admitted that ‘high ability’ students at poor schools stand to get worse-than-deserved results this year because ‘they fall outside the pattern of results’ the computer model relies on.

The proportion of teachers believing their A-level and GCSE students are likely to get a ‘fair deal’ has fallen from 39 per cent to just 24 per cent, a poll published by TES revealed. One teacher said: ‘I do not believe awarding results based on the historic performance of a school is fair. Year groups will have different abilities, and some cohorts will be stronger than previous cohorts.’

Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said her ‘real worry that the most disadvantaged children will be the ones that will miss out and those in schools that have not been faring well, or indeed those with a history of poor achievement, will be downgraded by the algorithm’.

Schools minister Nick Gibb defended this year’s system, saying it was the ‘fairest and best system that we could devise’.

An Ofqual spokesman said: ‘Exam boards are committed to completing appeals as quickly as possible.’

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