Coronavirus: Teaching unions ‘allow parents to think schools are death traps’

Teaching unions have been accused of allowing parents to think schools were “death traps” as they warned pupils may be unable to return even in September.

Leaders of the major teaching unions held a combative session with MPs, in which they argued the government’s social distancing guidelines would not allow a full return.

Primary schools have been permitted to partially reopen for three year groups since the start of this month.

But the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced last week that plans for all primary pupils to return before the summer holidays had been shelved amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Union leaders say the guidance that children should be kept within classes of up to 15 pupils which do not mix with others; and that two-metre distancing should be enforced in secondary schools and colleges, would not allow the full return of all pupils even in the autumn.

It came as the prime minister clashed with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, suggesting the Opposition and unions were
hampering efforts to reopen schools.

In PMQs, Boris Johnson repeatedly challenged Sir Keir to say it was safe for children to return and accused Labour of “wibble-wobble” over the issue.

Mary Bousted, of the National Education Union, was asked by the chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon: “What’s going to change in September if the social distancing rules are still the same?”

Ms Bousted, the joint general-secretary of the NEU, replied: “If the government retains its social distancing rules then they can’t [reopen].”

Julie McCulloch, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Absolutely we want all children to be back in school from September, that’s by far the best solution.

“But we are not able to do that at present within the government’s own protective measures guidance. The maths just doesn’t work.

“If you can only have up to 15 children in a class and you’re bringing back all children, you need twice as many classrooms and you need twice as many teachers.”

Ms Bousted said the government should look at using public buildings as overflow classrooms, but that “blended learning” – an element of home schooling alongside normal attendance – may have to continue.

Furious Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis, a former teacher who represents Stoke-on-Trent North, told the union leaders: “I’ve never been so frustrated in my entire life as listening to this committee.”

He accused the unions of “running a political campaign” against school reopening and added: “Whether you like it or not it has come across to parents that these schools are death traps and that is not the case and thousands of children are not going to school.”

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