‘Government making it up as it goes along’: Union chief says ministers changed plans to reopen schools 41 times
A union leader has accused the government of “making it up as it goes along” and claimed that guidance to reopen schools has been tweaked more than 40 times since early May.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said it was “too soon” to reopen primary schools in England on Monday and called for the move to be delayed until 15 June.
Ministers have said their five key tests required for the easing of lockdown have been met – and schools will admit more pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from Monday.
However, Dr Bousted argued that the tests had not been met properly and pointed to concerns among scientists about the easing of lockdown measures.
“There’s a huge thing to do about public confidence and parental confidence, that it is safe to get your children back to school, and the government simply did not give enough time to plan,” she told Sky News Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
“Let me just give you one piece of information. The government’s plans on reopening schools, since they were first produced on 12 May, have been changed 41 times.
“That’s because they have had to constantly be revised as things they have forgotten, things they didn’t know, things they have got wrong have been added in.
“That’s hugely added to the stress on school leaders and teachers because we have a government, simply, who they think is just making it up as it goes along.”
Her claim that the guidance had been revised multiple times because of errors was rejected by the Department for Education (DfE), which said the main document had only been substantively changed once.
Dr Bousted urged ministers to delay reopening schools for another fortnight to allow the infection rates to fall further and for the test-and-trace programme to get up and running.
She said: “We think tomorrow is too soon and we have made that argument very, very clearly for a number of weeks now, ever since Boris Johnson made his announcement on 10 May.”
The union leader also argued that summer holidays should not be cancelled as teachers have been “working flat out” to provide education for children at home, although she said holiday clubs and voluntary activities could take place.
Tory MP Caroline Johnson, a member of the Education Select Committee, hit back at Dr Bousted’s comments, saying: “It is sad to see Labour and the hard-left NEU chasing headlines rather than acknowledging the facts around the phased, cautious wider opening of schools.
“Throughout this pandemic the government has engaged closely with the unions, schools and local authorities and that engagement continues.
“Having reviewed the scientific and medical advice from Sage [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies], all of us want to ensure children can get the education they need whilst ensuring the risk of transmission is very low.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “We update our materials to ensure they are up to date and meet schools’ needs. Our ‘actions to prepare for wider opening’ guidance has only been updated once since its publication.”
Schools, colleges and nurseries closed more than nine weeks ago at the height of the coronavirus outbreak, only remaining open for the children of key workers.
Class sizes will be limited to 15 from Monday, with government guidance also suggesting that desks should be spaced as far apart as possible.
Experts expressed some concern about the potential spread of infection in schools, as the science behind whether children can transmit the coronavirus at the same level of adults remains poorly understood.
Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University, said testing must be rolled out in schools, as in hospitals and care homes, to prevent further outbreaks.
“What we want to be having is actually testing in schools,” she said.
“We need to be treating schools like how we’ve been treating hospitals and care homes. These are institutions that need to be monitored, and teachers need to be tested; older students need to be tested.
“We don’t yet have those monitoring systems in place.”
Professor Peter Openshaw, who advises the government, said schools reopening could push the infection rate up, saying it is “a very contentious area”.
However, he added: “My personal feeling is that cautious school openings might be justified.”
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said it was likely that coronavirus will endure “for many months, if not years, to come” and said schools must return for the good of the pupils.
He said: “Covid-19 has made it even more difficult for some children to get the most from their education and we cannot let the virus wreck the hopes and dreams of a generation.”