How to reopen schools: Academies boss says government must vaccinate staff

An academy chief today cast doubt on ‘optimistic’ plans to get all pupils back into school at the start of March as he warned dates were ‘being pulled out of thin air.’ 

As the PM faces mounting pressure to send children in England back to school, Downing Street has suggested that all primary and secondary children can return to classrooms three weeks today.

But Steve Chalke, the head of the Oasis Academies Trust, described Number 10’s plan as ‘impossible’.  

He suggested ministers take a ‘regional approach’ by vaccinating all staff before sending pupils back. 

He also warned schools needed to create more space including having marquees in playgrounds, to avoid children being ‘like sardines in a can’. 

Steve Chalke, the head of the Oasis Academies Trust, described Number 10's plan as 'impossible'

Steve Chalke, the head of the Oasis Academies Trust, described Number 10's plan as 'impossible'

Steve Chalke, the head of the Oasis Academies Trust, described Number 10’s plan as ‘impossible’

Mr Chalke suggested ministers take a 'regional approach' by vaccinating all staff before sending pupils back. He also warned schools needed to create more space including having marquees in playgrounds and phased rota systems

Mr Chalke suggested ministers take a 'regional approach' by vaccinating all staff before sending pupils back. He also warned schools needed to create more space including having marquees in playgrounds and phased rota systems

Mr Chalke suggested ministers take a ‘regional approach’ by vaccinating all staff before sending pupils back. He also warned schools needed to create more space including having marquees in playgrounds and phased rota systems 

Unions pour cold water on plan to reopen classrooms on March 8 

Teaching unions cast doubt yesterday on ambitious plans to get all pupils back into school on March 8.

Downing Street hopes that all primary and secondary children in England can return to classrooms three weeks today as long as Covid rates continue to decline.

But unions were sceptical and asked why ministers have abandoned the idea of a ‘phased’ return of year groups which was used last year.

Geoff Barton, leader of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘There is no point in bringing all children back at once if this causes a spike in coronavirus infection rates which forces another lockdown. It is vital all options are kept open.’

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT union, said the Government must show decisions ‘are led by the scientific evidence and advice’.

He also called for ‘evidence of sustained’ cuts to the R rate, nationally, regionally and locally.

Mr Chalke also told The Sunday Times: ‘We should be driven by scientific data, not dates.’

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Mr Chalke is the founder of the Oasis Trust, which runs 53 schools around the country.

He warned against the chaotic scenes last September, when all children were sent back after the summer break, ‘like sardines into a can.’ 

He told BBC Radio 4 Today’s programme: ‘We’re optimistic because the vaccine seems to be working, we all want to get children back…because we know all children will learn better with their peers in a classroom than at home online or whatever.

‘But optimism can be born of two things – dreams and hopes or planning and preparation.

‘What we don’t need is a false start. 

‘It’s one thing to open schools – it’s another thing to keep them open. 

‘Dates are pulled out of thin air – March 8, after half-term, January 4, it could be Easter, it could be May.’

In a blog last week, the Department for Education appeared to be trying to dampen expectations, saying: ‘We hope to be able to start welcoming back more pupils from 8 March at the earliest.

‘It is important to reiterate that we do not see this as a ‘return to school’ but more of an expansion of the numbers of pupils already in school.’

But Mr Chalke suggested ‘regional responses rather than national responses’ and looking at primary schools and secondary schools differently.

He added: ‘We do need to ask questions about regional responses rather than national responses – we need to work out the differences between primary schools and secondary schools. 

‘We need to understand that when schools went back after the first lockdown – first of all primaries on June 1 – in effect we were sending half the school back because it was vulnerable children who were already there and key workers’ children, then we sent years one and six. 

‘We followed with the same kind of recipe for secondary schools. 

‘So you had half the kids, if you like, in all the space. 

‘But in September we tried to put all the kids instantly into the same space – it was like sardines into a can.

‘As an educator I know if you do the analysis – why schools had to close year groups, bubbles, and whole schools – it was because there weren’t enough staff to keep teaching. That’s why we shut down.

‘We need to think regionally; vaccinate staff, more space – perhaps that’s phased education, rotas, marquees in playgrounds.’

He also said ministers needed to scrap ‘potty’ mini exams. 

He added: ‘[The government should] Relieve the stress and finally announce that we aren’t doing mini exams – we all know its potty. 

‘Say it’s going to be teachers’ assessment – you take the stress away and you allow the staff – who we need to respect – to work hard on this plan. 

‘Announce the plan.’   

The debate over school reopenings came as the outgoing Children's Commissioner warned that one in six children may never catch up on lost school time without the right support [Stock image]

The debate over school reopenings came as the outgoing Children's Commissioner warned that one in six children may never catch up on lost school time without the right support [Stock image]

The debate over school reopenings came as the outgoing Children’s Commissioner warned that one in six children may never catch up on lost school time without the right support [Stock image]

Teaching unions cast doubt yesterday on ambitious plans to get all pupils back into school on March 8 [Stock image]

Teaching unions cast doubt yesterday on ambitious plans to get all pupils back into school on March 8 [Stock image]

Teaching unions cast doubt yesterday on ambitious plans to get all pupils back into school on March 8 [Stock image]

The debate came as the outgoing Children’s Commissioner warned that one in six children may never catch up on lost school time without the right support.

Anne Longfield told Sky News that many youngsters needed help to ‘build back those social skills and that confidence’.

However Sir Kevan Collins, the education catch-up tsar, cautioned against seeing longer days and time spent at summer schools as a panacea.

‘You’ve got to increase the quality as well as the time,’ he told Times Radio.

Some scientific advisers are concerned about the possible impact on the R rate, the Sunday Times reported, but Boris Johnson favours keeping other controls in place in exchange for the return of schools, even if it does increase overall infection rates.

‘Getting pupils in class is the PM’s top priority. We know that will increase infections and we need to move cautiously with everything else,’ a source told the paper.

The Department for Education said it would not comment on speculation ahead of the Prime Minister’s roadmap, due on February 22. 

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