Boris Johnson attempted to reassert his grip over education after days of chaos by making a personal plea to parents to send their children back to the classroom in England in September.
The prime minister, who was criticised for going on holiday to Scotland during the A-level debacle, has spoken out to say the risk of contracting coronavirus in school is low and that it is damaging for children to be out of education for any longer.
His decision to personally front the return-to-school drive rather than Gavin Williamson, the beleaguered education secretary who has faced calls to quit over the fiasco, is part of a deliberate attempt to switch the “messenger” and win back the public, a senior Tory suggested.
Johnson’s intervention comes after the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said children could be at greater harm by staying at home than attending school.
Regarding the expected return on 1 September, Johnson said: “I have previously spoken about the moral duty to reopen schools to all pupils safely, and I would like to thank the school staff who have spent the summer months making classrooms Covid-secure in preparation for a full return in September.
“We have always been guided by our scientific and medical experts, and we now know far more about coronavirus than we did earlier this year. As the chief medical officer has said, the risk of contracting Covid-19 in school is very small and it is far more damaging for a child’s development and their health and wellbeing to be away from school any longer.
“This is why it’s vitally important that we get our children back into the classroom to learn and to be with their friends. Nothing will have a greater effect on the life chances of our children than returning to school.”
Williamson faced calls to quit after pupils were given downgraded A-level results because of an algorithm applied by exams watchdog Ofqual, despite being warned of flaws in advance.
Gallery: Coronavirus outbreak around the world (Photo Services)
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This meant some pupils missed out on places at university and the government was forced into an embarrassing U-turn to allow teacher-assessed grades to be used instead. Tory poll ratings also narrowed to just two points ahead of Labor for the first time since Johnson became prime minister.
Johnson was criticised for not publicly addressing the A-level issue and continuing with his holiday in Applecross in the Highlands until his location was discovered and the trip reportedly cut short.
The chief medical officers and deputy chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales said in a joint statement they were confident the evidence showed an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19.
Schools in Scotland reopened earlier this month, while those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to welcome all pupils from the beginning of September.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he visits St Joseph’s Catholic School, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Up minster, London, Britain August 10, 2020.
Tory MP Robert Halfon, who is chair of the education select committee, said he understood parents would be worried but it would be a significant risk to keep children at home.
He warned of an “epidemic of educational poverty”, while former minister Theresa Villiers said the prime minister was sending a strong signal that getting children back to school was a priority. “He’s gripping this and determined to get it done,” she said.
Ahead of a delicate few weeks for the government, one senior Tory said: “Lots of Tory MPs think Gavin is now discredited so a different and better messenger was needed.”
But another said: “Boris Johnson making these comments isn’t to do with Gavin although that will have had an impact. Education is the centre of everything that we are doing, so it’s got to come from the top and the clearer message the better.”
Keir Starmer, however, said government incompetence and the chaos caused by the exams fiasco was putting the plans to get all children back to school at serious risk.
In an interview with the Observer, the Labour leader said two crucial weeks were wasted dealing with a self-inflicted mess that has destroyed public confidence in government.
Starmer said: “I want to see children back at school next month, and I expect the prime minister to deliver on that commitment. However, the commitment is now at serious risk after a week of chaos, confusion and incompetence from the government.”
The Liberal Democrats’ education spokeswoman, Layla Moran, said parents were worried and the government must rapidly upscale test and trace, and ensure schools had the mental health support, financial resources and the use of community spaces they needed before fully reopening.
She said Williamson should be fired. “The country, and seemingly the prime minister, has lost faith in Gavin Williamson,” Moran said. “To restore confidence among parents, pupils and teachers the best thing the prime minister could do is sack him, rather than try to speak for him.”
Teaching unions share the government’s ambition to get all children back to school, but remain concerned about safety and have called on ministers to draw up a plan B in the event of Covid-19 outbreaks affecting schools.
Responding to the joint statement by UK chief medical officers about school reopening, Unison, which represents school support workers, said it was vital for staff to be allowed to wear face coverings, especially given the acknowledgement of a transmission risk between staff.
“It’s still unclear why government guidance won’t allow them, when they’re recommended for other workplaces,” said Unison’s head of education, Jon Richards, who also called for more money to pay for specially trained cleaners to carry out regular deep cleans. He also requested proper social distancing measures in cramped conditions such as school kitchens.
Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in his office at the Department of Education in Westminster, London, following the announcement that A-level and GCSE results in England will now be based on teachers’ assessments of their students, unless the grades produced by the controversial algorithm are higher.
The National Education Union accused the government of being “negligent in the extreme” with no plan B in the case of further outbreaks and an insufficiently robust test-and-trace system.
NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “Today’s report by Public Health England shows that there were only a small number of outbreaks in schools after the partial wider opening in June, but as the report itself acknowledges there are limitations on the generalisability of its findings.
“Schools and colleges need to know what should happen if an outbreak of the virus occurs in individual schools or more widely with either national, regional or local spikes.”
The government has already promised a £1bn catch-up fund for schools and on Monday will unveil a package targeted at children in their first year of primary to boost their early language skills. Priority will be given to schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils.