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Opinion: Schools - we prepare, but are not yet convinced

PUBLISHED: 08:30 21 May 2020

Cllr Muhammed Butt is assessing daily the possibility of sending pupils back to school.

Cllr Muhammed Butt is assessing daily the possibility of sending pupils back to school.

Archant

For councils up and down the country this past week will have been dominated by the decision to begin opening schools up to more pupils.

And it’s not just local authorities – the schools themselves, teachers and the teaching unions, and of course parents will have all been wrestling with what is an incredibly complex set of circumstances. In my experience, in much of our work designing and delivering public services, there are choices where it’s obvious what is the right thing to do. Then there are choices where compromises are needed but it is still possible to determine which way to go. And there are those choices where all you can do is identify the least-worst option.

Of course, the vast majority of schools in Brent have remained open throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, supporting children of key workers and vulnerable children but the question is now whether schools are ready to safely take back more children in a phased basis starting with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

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The overriding priority must be to keep everyone involved safe from harm, not least our children and young people but also, of course, school staff. But right now, because this situation is so complicated, that’s just not possible. Until a vaccine is available, sending more children back to school risks exposing them to infection. Yet, if we continue to wait until a vaccine is ready, we risk potentially lasting damage to their personal development and academic attainment – damage that disproportionately affects those from less well-off households, of which there are many in Brent. Both risks are very real. Either on its own would ordinarily be considered totally unacceptable. But we are now nearing a point where we have to pick one.

It is central government’s clear wish that schools begin to reopen from June 1. We are told that government is acting on scientific advice and that the known benefits of a return to formal education outweigh the estimated risks of coronavirus infection and transmission. Now, I do understand the imperative, especially because of how important a proper education is to a child’s life chances. Nonetheless, councils like ours, schools, teaching unions, and parent groups across the UK are pressing government to publish that advice as it is local authorities which have a clear role in supporting and advising schools locally.

In the meantime, we have to work on the assumption that the situation is as government says, and as such we have asked our schools to begin making the necessary preparations for a June 1 reopening. However, I want to stress that, until government can provide greater assurance, although we have instructed our schools to make these preparations, we do not plan on forcing them to actually reopen. We will instead support them whether or not they choose to do so at this time. Teachers can also rely on our unconditional support whether or not they are yet ready to return to the classroom. Parents too will have our full support whether or not they feel it’s safe enough to send their children back to school.

In summary, we believe the responsible course of action to be preparing the ground for a return to school in the near future. But we are not yet certain that the many benefits of returning outweigh the risks of doing so. We will keep our position under daily review, are committed to consulting widely, and will make clear any changes as and when they are made.


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