1,500 experts demand Boris publishes a clear plan for schools reopening

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More than 1,500 leading experts have demanded Boris Johnson publish a clear plan for getting children back to school before a generation of pupils are left ‘scarred for life’.

In a scathing letter to the Prime Minister today, paediatricians warned the prolonged closure of schools could spark a wave of health, social and educational problems that linger ‘long after Covid-19’.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) claimed millions of pupils were missing out on education and friendships, physical exercise and even free vaccinations against other illnesses.

But it is society’s most disadvantaged children who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic because they have been robbed of the safety net that school provides, according to the experts. 

For these pupils and their families, interventions such as free school meals and mental health support are ‘the difference between surviving and thriving’, the letter says.

Schools have been closed to the majority of pupils since March 20 in a desperate bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But official figures have shown children are more likely to be hit by lightning than die form Covid-19. 

Wales has published detailed plans to get a third of youngsters back in classrooms by the end of the month, while Scotland has set out strategy to reopen schools in August.

But the UK Government – which initially ordered schools to go back this month then U-turned – continues to flip-flop over its plans and has highlighted September as the arbitrary date on which classrooms must reopen. 

Private schools, fed up with the lack of direction from ministers, are understood to be planning to open at the new academic year ‘come what may’ regardless of what the official advice is.

Meanwhile, teaching unions were today accused by MPs of running a ‘disgraceful political campaign’ to keep classrooms closed by making parents fear they are ‘deathtraps’ when children can now go to Primark but not to school. 

In other coronavirus developments today: 

  • More than 5,500 people have signed a petition to close Oxfordshire shopping and tourist destination Bicester Village amid concerns visitors flocking there risk spreading the virus; 
  • Health Secretary Matt Hancock raised hopes for people wanting a summer holiday as he said the Government will permit people to travel to some low-risk countries without being quarantined when they return;
  • More than 100 workers at a meat factory in Wales have been sent into self-isolation – the factory supplies chicken to KFC and Tesco;
  • The Government is still under mounting pressure to help more children get back to school amid fury they are allowed to go to zoos and high street shops but not to continue education;
  • Matt Hancock hinted the Government is trying to get rid of the 2m (6’6″) social distancing rule and chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance said shorter distances could be ‘managed’. 
More than 1,500 leading experts have demanded Boris Johnson publishes a clear plan for getting children back to school before a generation of pupils are left 'scarred for life'. Pictured: A teacher at the front of a class of Year 12 pupils at Ortu Gable Hall School in Corringham, Essex as older students returned this week

More than 1,500 leading experts have demanded Boris Johnson publishes a clear plan for getting children back to school before a generation of pupils are left ‘scarred for life’. Pictured: A teacher at the front of a class of Year 12 pupils at Ortu Gable Hall School in Corringham, Essex as older students returned this week

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said the decision to protect the elder generations by shutting schools has come at a cost to children

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said the decision to protect the elder generations by shutting schools has come at a cost to children

1,500 EXPERTS DEMAND PLAN TO REOPEN SCHOOLS: THE LETTER IN FULL 

As paediatricians we are increasingly concerned by the continued absence of millions of children from schools. This interruption is without precedent and risks scarring the life chances of a generation of young people.

Clinically, most young people have been spared the worst effects of COVID-19 but the health and social impact will be severe.

The brunt of the impact of COVID-19 is and will continue to be borne by children and families who have the fewest resources and need the most support. The attainment gap was significant long before the pandemic. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are twice as likely to leave school without national qualifications in English and maths compared with better off peers . Left unchecked, COVID-19 will exacerbate existing problems and deepen structural social and health inequalities.

School is about much more than learning. It is a vital point of contact for public health services, safeguarding and other initiatives. This includes access to mental health support, vaccinations, special therapies, free school meals, physical activity and early years services that help children get the best start in life. For many children and their families, these interventions are the difference between surviving and thriving. In their absence our already frayed safety net cannot function, and we risk failing a generation.

We recognise the efforts of school leaders, local authorities, teachers and other professionals, who have worked tirelessly to facilitate learning for our children and young people. They deserve decisive leadership from the top of government.

We note that plans have been published for children to begin returning to school in Scotland and Wales. We call on the UK government and the Northern Ireland Executive to urgently publish clear plans for getting children back to school; and for all UK governments to deliver recovery plans for children and young people.

Without such action, the effects of COVID-19 will linger far beyond the pandemic itself and will limit the life chances of children and young people for years to come.

Today’s letter reads: ‘Clinically, most young people have been spared the worst effects of COVID-19 but the health and social impact will be severe.

‘The brunt of the impact of COVID-19 is and will continue to be borne by children and families who have the fewest resources and need the most support. 

‘The attainment gap was significant long before the pandemic. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are twice as likely to leave school without national qualifications in English and maths compared with better off peers . 

‘Left unchecked, COVID-19 will exacerbate existing problems and deepen structural social and health inequalities.’  

Professor Russell Viner, president of the RCPCH and member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said: ‘Children need their schools. Every child deserves to have an uninterrupted education.

‘Schools are vital to the wellbeing of children and young people, providing a range of services from vaccinations to mental health support.

‘Schools are also where at-risk children are looked out for and supported. Right now, we don’t know how some of the most vulnerable children in our society are faring because they are outside of the safety net that school provides.

‘And, of course, schools are also where our children run around, play and laugh and argue with each other. They need to return to that sort of a healthy normality as soon as possible.’  

Dr Liz Marder, a consultant community paediatrician working in Nottingham who signed the letter within two minutes of it being sent out, said: ‘Up until now, very few children have been directly affected by COVID-19. 

‘But, indirectly, many children and young people have suffered enormously from the impact that the pandemic has had on their daily lives.

‘It is our most vulnerable children, such as those from disadvantaged families or those with additional needs, who may suffer most.

‘Getting children safely back into education as soon as we can has to be a priority if we are to avoid further damage to the health, well-being and life chances of so many of our young people.’ 

The Government last week abandoned plans for all primary school children in England to return before the summer holidays.

Some secondary groups restarted this week but caps on class sizes are causing problems. 

It means that most pupils up to GCSE age will have been at home for nearly six months by the time they go back in September.  

Private schools are thought to be taking matters into their own hands and planning to open at the new academic year regardless of what the Government advice is.

Boris initially ordered schools to go back this month then U-turned. He has now highlighted September 1 as the arbitrary date on which classrooms must reopen

Boris initially ordered schools to go back this month then U-turned. He has now highlighted September 1 as the arbitrary date on which classrooms must reopen

LOCKDOWN PUTTING TEENS AT RISK OF FUTURE MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS, STUDY

The coronavirus lockdown could have long-term damaging effects on teenagers’ mental health, leading experts have warned.

Face-to-face social interaction is vital for brain development and building a sense of self between the age of 10 and 24.

University of Cambridge researchers warn depriving young people of this may lead to a host of mental health, behavioural and cognitive problems later in life. 

In an editorial in the Lancet, neuroscientists from the prestigious university called for schools to reopen for young people as a priority to prevent long-term damage.

And despite being blamed for an explosion of mental health problems in recent years, the scientists say social media might actually have been the saving grace for teens during the pandemic.

The ability to interact with friends virtually may have mitigated some of the negative effects of physical distancing, they write. 

It comes after official data found half of under-25s had been affected by ‘lockdown loneliness’.

Some of Britain’s best-known fee-paying schools are organising their own track and trace systems – with plans to have them operational for September. 

One governor at a leading private school said headteachers are ‘furious’ with the Government over its dithering on the issue of schools reopening. 

He told the Telegraph schools ‘could have legally and safely opened this term’, adding: ‘We have had enough. 

‘We will definitely open in September using our own hygiene measures, our own risk-based assessment of social distancing and our own test and trace system.

‘There is no confidence left in the Government, given their failed promises. All schools should do the same.’

Chairman of the Independent Schools Council, Barnaby Lenon, has called for ministers to give headteachers the freedom to reopen from September if they think it is appropriate.

Mr Lenon, a former headmaster of Harrow School, said that the Government should rely on ‘the good judgement of heads, all of whom will have carried out risk assessments’. 

He added there was now ‘significant demand’ for more flexibility on how private schools should reopen. 

Downing Street’s schools policy has come under criticism after officials rowed back on plans to have every primary school pupil return to school before summer – and then said it would be encouraging this. 

New guidance this week said that all secondary school pupils in England could return before summer – but just for one day. 

Responding to a legal challenge about its lockdown policies, the Government recently admitted in a High Court document that it was a ‘request, not a direction’ for schools to shut down.

Private schools plan to reference the document to convince insurers that a September reopening is safe.    

UNDER-15S ‘MORE LIKELY TO BE HIT BY LIGHTNING THAN DIE OF COVID-19’

School children under the age of 15 have a ‘tiny’ one-in-3.5million chance of dying from coronavirus and are more likely to be hit by lightning, according to statistics.

Analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) by a top expert from the University of Cambridge last week showed that the risk of Covid-19 to children is extremely low.

The death rate for youngsters aged five to 14 in England and Wales is around one in 3.5million and for under-5s it is one in 1.17million — only 14 people aged under 19 have died with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 since the start of the outbreak.

In comparison, between 30 and 60 people are hit by lightning every year in the UK, according to figures from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

This is a risk of between one in 2.21million and one in 1.1million each year, the Daily Telegraph reported, although it was unclear how many people hit by lightning are children.   

School closures could ‘put back years of slow progress on social mobility’ with privately educated pupils almost twice as likely to have online lessons than their state school counterparts.

Meanwhile, teaching unions were yesterday accused by MPs of running a ‘disgraceful political campaign’ to keep classrooms closed by making parents fear they are ‘deathtraps’.

Rowing broke out as the heads of the four main teaching unions appeared before the Education Select Committee to discuss the impact of coronavirus on young people. 

At the committee, Tory chairman Robert Halfon asked union chiefs: ‘Can you explain why parents and children can have access to Primark over the coming weeks and months but not to schools?’

Mr Halfon also questioned the safety regime being demanded for teachers to return, suggesting they were being falsely compared to nurses who he said work in far more ‘hazardous and dangerous’ conditions than schools.

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the NEU, Britain’s largest teaching union, interrupted and hit back: ‘If you have a quarrel with the risk assessments in schools, then take that up with the DfE (Department for Education) on whose guidance those risk assessments are being done’. 

And just a week after the NEU called for a ‘can-do mentality’ to get pupils back in class, Dr Bousted said that social distancing means schools will be unable to fully reopen in September meaning millions of children face ‘blended learning’ – pupils learning at school and at home. 

MPs on the committee, held on Zoom, reacted with fury to her comments.  Tory MP Jonathan Gullis, a former teacher, said he was ‘outraged’ with the unions and said: ‘I’ve never been so frustrated in my entire life as sitting in this committee, listening to what’s being said’ and accused the NEU of ‘running a political campaign to make sure schools did not open that is utterly disgraceful’.

‘Why can children go to Primark but NOT school?’ Furious Tory MPs accuse teaching unions of ‘cherry picking’ evidence to make parents fear classrooms are ‘death traps’

Teaching unions were today accused by MPs of running a ‘disgraceful political campaign’ to keep classrooms closed by making parents fear they are ‘deathtraps’ when children can now go to Primark but not to school.

Rowing broke out as the heads of the four main teaching unions appeared before the Education Select Committee to discuss the impact of coronavirus on young people.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer were embroiled in bitter clashes in the Commons, with the PM demanding the Labour leader stated it is safe for children to return to school. ‘The unions won’t let him say the truth,’ Mr Johnson raged. 

At the committee, Tory chairman Robert Halfon asked union chiefs: ‘Can you explain why parents and children can have access to Primark over the coming weeks and months but not to schools?’

Mr Halfon also questioned the safety regime being demanded for teachers to return, suggesting they were being falsely compared to nurses who he said work in far more ‘hazardous and dangerous’ conditions than schools.

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the NEU, Britain’s largest teaching union, interrupted and hit back: ‘If you have a quarrel with the risk assessments in schools, then take that up with the DfE (Department for Education) on whose guidance those risk assessments are being done’. 

And just a week after the NEU called for a ‘can-do mentality’ to get pupils back in class, Dr Bousted said that social distancing means schools will be unable to fully reopen in September meaning millions of children face ‘blended learning’ – pupils learning at school and at home. 

MPs on the committee, held on Zoom, reacted with fury to her comments.  Tory MP Jonathan Gullis, a former teacher, said he was ‘outraged’ with the unions and said: ‘I’ve never been so frustrated in my entire life as sitting in this committee, listening to what’s being said’ and accused the NEU of ‘running a political campaign to make sure schools did not open that is utterly disgraceful’.

Tory Education Committee chairman Robert Halfon asked unions 'Can you explain why parents and children can have access to Primark over the coming weeks and months but not to schools?'

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the NEU, Britain's largest teaching union, interrupted and hit back: 'If you have a quarrel with the risk assessments in schools, then take that up with the DfE

Tory chairman Robert Halfon asked unions ‘Can you explain why parents and children can have access to Primark over the coming weeks and months but not to schools?’ Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the NEU, Britain’s largest teaching union, interrupted and hit back: ‘If you have a quarrel with the risk assessments in schools, then take that up with the DfE

Boris Johnson

Keir Starmer

Boris Johnson (left) and Keir Starmer (right) were embroiled in bitter clashes in the Commons, with the PM demanding the Labour leader stated it is safe for children to return to school. ‘The unions won’t let him say the truth,’ Mr Johnson raged

Marcus Rashford says Boris Johnson THANKED him for speaking up for the underprivileged after the Man United star’s free school meals campaign 

England striker Marcus Rashford today revealed Boris Johnson phoned him and thanked him for using his profile to help feed vulnerable families as the football star said he is already considering his next child poverty campaign.  

Manchester United star Rashford spoke with the Prime Minister on Tuesday, after he was forced into a U-turn and agreed that 1.3million children currently eligible for free lunches in England will get vouchers worth £15 a week that can be spent in supermarkets.

Speaking to the BBC, the 22-year-old said: ‘I was obviously shocked it’s a big decision for someone to make. I’m just grateful the Prime Minister did change his decision and he understood.’ 

On his conversation with the Prime Minister, he said: ‘He was just saying thank you for using what I’ve built in a positive manner, we was sort of thanking each other because he didn’t have to do what he done and neither did I.

‘He was grateful that someone had an opinion and shared it with people and had been that voice for people who didn’t have the platform to speak out as much as they’d like too.’ 

Revealing the campaigning will continue, he said his big win off the pitch had ‘bought an extra six weeks’ for him to ‘figure out what’s next’. He said: ‘I don’t want this to be the end of it because there are more steps that need to be taken and we just need to analyse the response. People are struggling all year around so we still need to learn more about the situation people are in and how we can help them best’.

Mr Rashford revealed last week that leaving home aged 11 to join Manchester United’s academy when his single mother Melanie struggled to feed the family had driven his campaign to ensure other children in the UK do not go hungry. 

And his mum has called him ‘about 10 times’ in recent days as his campaign hit the headlines, he said, adding it was ‘nice to see her smiling’ about the PM’s decision. He said: ‘When she was going through [the hardship], if someone had spoken about it then maybe the situation would’ve been different’.

Speaking at yesterday’s daily coronavirus briefing, Mr Johnson denied he was shamed into the dramatic climbdown and raised eyebrows by claiming he only became aware of the push by Rashford – inspired by his own tough upbringing – earlier on Tuesday. 24 hours earlier the PM’s spokesman commented the campaign – but rejected his plea for a free school meals extension. 

 

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT union then insisted that they were all working to get children back but had to make sure it was ‘within the country’s health and safety rules’. 

Mr Gullis said: ‘Whether you like it or not it has come across to parents that these schools are death traps and that is not the case’. 

Fellow Conservative MP David Simmonds also suggested that unions had been ‘cherry picking’ evidence and said: ‘The schools should be open now’.

He also blasted their backing for the alternative SAGE group who claimed schools were not safe to open, saying they were relying on ‘self-appointed people who set up a group because they disagreed with the actual Sage group’.

Dr Bousted later suggested teachers were being made scapegoats, adding: ‘Some of the line of the questioning here seems to be that it’s schools’ and teachers’ and leaders’ fault for following government guidance’.

She added that England’s schools have high class numbers in buildings with ‘small footprints’ and said that the use of public buildings should be looked at. This would include churches, sports stadiums, libraries and village halls. 

In bruising exchanges in the Commons, Mr Johnson repeatedly called on Sir Keir to confirm that it is safe for children to go back to school.

He said one of the best ways to help the poorest children in the country ‘would be to encourage all kids who can go back to school to go back to school now because their schools are safe’. 

‘It’s the most disadvantaged kids who need to go back to school and it is those groups which, unfortunately, at the moment that are not going back to school,’ Mr Johnson said.

‘Let’s hear from him, one more time, will he say schools are safe to go back to? Come on.’

Sir Keir replied: ‘This is turning into Opposition questions.’ 

The PM pressed again: ‘There are some councils, particularly Labour councils alas, that are not opening their schools when they could be opening them.

‘And I say to him, I hope for the last time, now is the moment when he can say to those Labour councillors that it is safe for kids to go back to reception, to year one, to year six, to early years. Will he now say it?’

Sir Keir replied: ‘Every week the Prime Minister seems to complain that I ask him questions at Prime Minister’s Questions. If he wants to swap place, so be it.’

Mr Johnson shot back: ‘There are some councils, particularly Labour councils alas, that are not opening their schools when they could be opening them.

‘And I say to him, I hope for the last time, now is the moment when he can say to those Labour councillors that it is safe for kids to go back to reception, to year one, to year six, to early years. Will he now say it?’

But Sir Keir again dodged responding, saying: ‘Every week the Prime Minister seems to complain that I ask him questions at Prime Minister’s Questions. If he wants to swap place, so be it.’

Today it emerged that private schools are planning to and open at the new academic year ‘come what may’ regardless of what the Government advice is.

Some of Britain’s best-known fee-paying schools are organising their own track and trace systems – with plans to have them operational for September. 

One governor at a leading private school said headteachers are ‘furious’ with the Government over its dithering on the issue of schools reopening. 

He told the Telegraph schools ‘could have legally and safely opened this term’, adding: ‘We have had enough. 

‘We will definitely open in September using our own hygiene measures, our own risk-based assessment of social distancing and our own test and trace system.

‘There is no confidence left in the Government, given their failed promises. All schools should do the same.’

Chairman of the Independent Schools Council, Barnaby Lenon, has called for ministers to give headteachers the freedom to reopen from September if they think it is appropriate.

Mr Lenon, a former headmaster of Harrow School, said that the Government should rely on ‘the good judgement of heads, all of whom will have carried out risk assessments’. 

He added there was now ‘significant demand’ for more flexibility on how private schools should reopen. 

Downing Street’s schools policy has come under criticism after officials rowed back on plans to have every primary school pupil return to school before summer – and then said it would be encouraging this. 

New guidance this week said that all secondary school pupils in England could return before summer – but just for one day. 

Responding to a legal challenge about its lockdown policies, the Government recently admitted in a High Court document that it was a ‘request, not a direction’ for schools to shut down.

Private schools plan to reference the document to convince insurers that a September reopening is safe.    

School closures could ‘put back years of slow progress on social mobility’ with privately educated pupils almost twice as likely to have online lessons than their state school counterparts.

The ‘prominent’ attainment gap between disadvantaged and more wealthy students is set to widen further amid the coronavirus pandemic, a report has revealed.

Researchers claim this gap could become permanent without ‘a concerted effort’ to help poorer pupils once schools reopen.

The stark warning from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) comes as Government sources refused to confirm whether all pupils will be able to return to school full-time in September.

Researchers from the IFS and University College London’s Institute of Education surveyed 4,157 parents with children aged between eight and 15 in English private and state schools from April 29 to May 12.

Some 79 per cent of families paying for private education said their child’s secondary school provides online classes.

This compares to just 41 per cent in state secondary schools attended by the most deprived children and only 53 per cent of state secondaries in middle class areas.

More affluent secondary pupils in both sectors spend almost an hour more a day on schoolwork than the least advantaged.

They also have more support at home, have had ‘more active involvement’ from teachers and are ‘much more likely’ to have private tutoring, the report found.

Overall, more affluent secondary pupils across both sectors are ‘spending more time in almost every single educational activity than their peers from the worse-off fifth of families’.

On average, they devote almost an hour more a day on schoolwork than the least advantaged.

They have more support at home and are also ‘much more likely’ to have private tutoring.

On Tuesday Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey welcomed the Government’s mooted summer catch-up programme, but pressed Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to develop a national plan for education.

This would involve schools receiving additional resources to help disadvantaged children, and public buildings being used for socially distanced teaching.

The Government advises that schools should communicate their plans to parents once they have had a chance to work through them in detail. 

Official advice includes carrying out a risk assessment before opening to more children and young people, making sure that children and young people do not attend if they or a member of their household has symptoms of coronavirus, and promoting regular hand washing for 20 seconds with running water and soap

It is also advised that schools clean more often to get rid of the virus on frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, handrails, tabletops, play equipment and toys. 

Teachers should reduce contact through smaller classes or group sizes and altering the environment as much as possible, such as changing the layout of classrooms reducing mixing between groups through timetable changes, such as staggered break times or by introducing staggered drop-off and collection times.

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