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Boris or Biggs: who’s right on return to school?

IT’S NOT JUST our working and social lives that came to a halt when the Lockdown was announced. For young people from three to 18, their worlds shrank as schools closed and they were sent home. Is it time for them to return?

The Prime Minister says it is.  He has asked primary schools to open for children in reception classes and Years 1 and 6, from 1st June (which would have been the first day back at school after the half-term holiday). He expects other Year Groups to join them by around July, at which point secondary school pupils should be going back to school too.

The re-opening of schools is crucial for a government which wants to get workers back to work – and off benefits and/or the subsidies of furloughs, grants for the self-employed and loans to small businesses. Children beginning to go back to school would also be a visible sign that the lockdown is ending and life is getting back to normal.

It fell to the teaching trade unions to put a spanner in the works – or, rather, two spanners.

The unions pointed out that schools had not actually been shut during the lockdown. Most school staff had been working flat out on delivering a virtual education over the internet.  There was also the question of safety: could the schools teach these classes while maintaining social distancing? If shop or clerical workers, say, were being expected to go back to work and maintain a distance from colleagues and the public, how were Reception Class teachers going to handle “story time on the carpet” while ensuring that their four year olds were all two metres apart from each other? If Year 6 teachers were going to teach only 15 pupils a time, were the pupils going to come in for half a day each, or was there a Magic Teacher Tree to provide the extra staff?

The Government responded with some on the hoof clarification here and there, plus a general campaign saying that the unions were being difficult, just like they were in the 1970s. Ministers suggested that any delay in returning to school would hurt the more disadvantaged children the most. While it is reassuring to think that the Government has noticed the social inequality that education helps to redress, this wasn’t quite the point.

Fortunately, the teacher unions, backed by sympathetic councils, seem to have won the day. Individual schools have carried out risk assessments and consulted staff and pupils’ parents and come up with individual plans to begin the return. Industrial quantities of hand sanitiser have been obtained, one way systems have been marked out in tape along school corridors, and teachers are ready for a planned, phased return. It just won’t look quite like what the Government ordered.  But it will start at least a few days earlier than the House of Commons will resume normal business.

Teaching staff in Tower Hamlets have received unexpected support from the Executive Mayor John Biggs. Biggs was on the verge of sacking the entire Council workforce (excluding those who work in schools) until the lockdown halted him in his tracks and he postponed the move, probably until 1st July. Now he has shown remarkable understanding of the position of staff in schools, to whom he refers as “our dedicated teachers and school staff”, as he congratulates them for supporting children during the Lockdown.

Further, Biggs has made it clear that the Council supports local headteachers in their work to ensure there are safe plans for a phased return of pupils to the school building. He has issued a “letter to residents”, which explains

“Like parents, I want to see local children back in a safe learning environment where they can catch up with missed learning and not slip behind. This is really important, but our top priority has to be the safety of pupils and our staff (and their families). And so, schools should open only when they are confident these risks can be safely managed. They, with our support, will complete a risk assessment to ensure measures are in place to manage the process safely. These risk assessments will be reviewed regularly, and pupil numbers will only increase when it can be managed safely.”

Against this backdrop, Tower Hamlets Unison and the East London branch of the National Education Union (NEU) have organised a Zoom discussion at 6pm tonight, Thursday, 28th May on how to ensure safety comes first as pupils return to school. Doubtless they will have criticisms of the Government’s “one size fits all” approach. They may also experience the extremely unusual feeling of agreeing that John Biggs has taken the right side on this one.

Read the full text of Executive Mayor John Biggs’s letter to residents here:

●Read more about it:
John Biggs – he’s not speaking our language
Biggs turns down “free speech on Palestine” petition

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