Union criticises ‘flimsy’ evidence behind Government’s plan to reopen schools

Teachers’ unions are calling for more answers from the Government over whether children and staff will be safe if schools reopen in England following a meeting with chief scientific advisers.

One leader of a teachers’ union said the scientific evidence presented at the briefing with the Government’s chief medical officer and other experts on Friday afternoon was “flimsy at best”.

Education unions say they have been left with many unanswered questions about the evidence underpinning the decision to reopen England’s schools to more pupils from June 1.

It comes as the chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) said that the Government should not consider reopening schools in England until the case numbers are “much lower”.

In a letter addressed to Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Dr Chaand Nagpaul said the current evidence on reopening schools is “conflicting” and he praised the union for urging caution over returning more pupils to school.

But after the meeting between unions and the scientific advisers, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said getting children back to school was “vital” for their educational development.

The Government plans to send children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 back to school from as early as next month despite opposition from teaching unions.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, said they had been left with “more questions than answers” after the briefing.

He told the PA news agency: “The meeting that we had earlier this afternoon frankly was not conclusive in relation to the evidence base to support the proposal for the wider reopening of schools. That evidence is flimsy at best, in terms of the international comparisons being used.”

Mr Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “We are pleased with today’s engagement, but very many questions that we asked were not addressed in the time available.

“We think it is very important that all the questions are answered and in public written form. This is important for transparency and for other scientists to comment on.”

Mr Courtney said that Sir Patrick Vallance told the union that they would prioritise publishing information and papers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

He added that the education unions were told there is still “a lot of uncertainty” about the science.

“For example, we were told children’s likelihood to transmit Covid-19 is not more than adults but only that it may be less than adults,” Mr Courtney said.

“Just yesterday the Office of National Statistics suggested that age does not affect the likelihood of being infected. Today we heard that there are cases where children do act as the index case.”

But some schools have already committed to reopening next month – if the Government goes ahead with its plans.

They have been looking at introducing one-way systems, half days, and staggered lunches in a bid to keep young children apart.

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Trust, which has 35 primary schools across the country, told PA that it is “common sense” for pupils to return to school, especially for children from lower-income families who see it as a place of “security and safety”.

Mr Williamson has welcomed efforts by many schools to prepare for reopening next month.

He said: “Getting children back to school is vital for their educational development and many schools are already taking steps to welcome back their pupils. I am grateful for their support.”

Mr Williamson added: “I want to reassure parents and families that we are giving schools, nurseries and other providers all the guidance and support they will need to welcome more children back in a phased way and no earlier than June 1.

“That’s why we have engaged closely with stakeholders from across the sector throughout the past seven weeks, including the trade unions, and today we arranged a detailed briefing for them with the scientific and medical experts.”

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