Hampshire and Portsmouth headteachers react to Boris Johnson's school closures U-turn

EDUCATION leaders have slammed the government over their handling of school closures, accusing them of not following expert advice and as a result constantly changing their minds on policy.

Tuesday, 5th January 2021, 2:15 pm

The criticism follows the prime minister announcing on Monday (January 4) that schools will once again be closed for face to face learning to all but key worker and vulnerable children. Boris Johnson said he had taken the decision as children were ‘vectors in the spread of the virus’.

The announcement follows on from the prime minister insisting just 24 hours earlier that schools were safe and that primary school parents should send their children to school.

Park Community School headteacher Chris Anders said: ‘We all now know that if a minister or the prime minister says something one day, it could be different the next day, especially when all the evidence suggests they are ignoring facts and expert opinions.’

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Park Community School headteacher Chris Anders has criticised the government following a series of policy changes which have affected schools. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

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While accepting the necessity of lockdown, Portsmouth City Council’s cabinet member for education Cllr Suzy Horton slammed the explanation of the U-turn as ‘ridiculous’.

Cllr Horton said: ‘There needed to be a clear decision made based on infection levels, to prevent the confusion being experienced at a local level. However what I do find ridiculous is the explanation of schools being a “vector for transmission" just 12 hours after saying schools were safe.

‘I can’t see how they didn’t have this information on Sunday.’

Portsmouth City Council's cabinet member for education Cllr Suzy Horton has criticised the government over its sudden change in stance over the transmission of Covid in schools.

After being informed just 24 hours before the end of term that schools would need to roll out mass testing programmes, headteachers have been left frustrated after schools had invested considerable time putting measures in place to implement the programme.

Mr Anders added: ‘It’s frustrating that yesterday we were planning for testing all children and now we are planning online learning for several weeks rather than just one or two. It’s not surprising since it seems the government’s view at any particular time is not to be relied on for any future period.’

It was a sentiment shared by Horndean Technology College headteacher, Julie Summerfield who said: ‘We’ve spent the last few days putting plans in place to test all staff and children and this has now gone out of the window.

‘Unlike last March the government is now insisting that all online learning is live and the biggest challenge I now have is being able to staff this while at the same time being able to provide face-to-face learning for key worker and vulnerable children.’

Priory School headteacher Stewart Vaughan has urged the government to take its time over any decision to cancel exams and to consult with school leaders. Picture: Sarah Standing (131120-9112)

With post-16 education also having to close, Portsmouth College principal Simon Barrable described the closures as ‘sad but inevitable’.

With the vast majority of children now to be taught online, educationalists have also been left frustrated the shift in stance comes just weeks after local schools were ordered by the Department for Education (DfE) to reverse a decision to offer remote learning in the last week of term to help reduce rising levels of transmission in schools. Some local authorities were even threatened with legal action if schools weren’t ‘fully open’.

With other previous U-turns on free school meal provision and exam grading, the leader of Portsmouth City Council, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, believes last night’s announcement should spell the end for education secretary Gavin Williamson.

Cllr Vernon-Jackson said: ‘There has been so much indecision and so many U-turns that the secretary of state for education needs to go. The way he has flip-flopped around with decisions is no good for anyone and has caused a lot of stress for parents and schools – everyone deserves better.’

Concerns over the transmission of the virus led to the National Education Union advising it’s members not to go into work if they felt unsafe. Following the announcement the NEU’s president and Portsmouth teacher, Amanda Martin, accused Mr Williamson of ‘burying his head in the sand’.

Ms Martin said: ‘Gavin Williamson has become an expert in putting his head in the sand – ignoring the mounting evidence of Covid-19 transmission in schools to education professionals and into pupils’ households. SAGE told ministers on 22 December that even a lockdown of the same severity as last spring would not be enough to reduce the R rate below 1.

‘It’s incomprehensible that, with this information, the prime minister even yesterday continued to declare that schools were safe. These are not the words of a leader who is ‘following the science’.

Defending the change in policy, Cabinet Office member Michael Gove said they ‘had to act’ after the government’s chief medical officers raised the Covid alert to level 5 – meaning the capacity of the NHS to cope could be overwhelmed.

Mr Gove said: ‘Under these circumstances all we could do was close the remaining primary schools which were open. We wanted to keep schools open as we know how important education is but the message from the chief medical officer was clear and therefore with a heavy heart but with clear evidence we had to act.’

Exam confusion

With schools and colleges now facing closure to all but key worker and vulnerable children until at least February half-term education leaders are now calling for clarity over how students are to be assessed.

Despite the government having previously insisted that GCSE and A-level examinations would go ahead the prime minister was last night forced to concede that exams would ‘not go ahead as normal’.

Boris Johnson said: ‘We recognise this will mean it’s not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal.’

It’s the issue of fairness which Portsmouth City Council’s cabinet member for education, Suzy Horton, now believes makes it impossible for exams to take place.

Cllr Horton said: ‘I’ve been consistent in saying exams should only go ahead if there’s a level playing field. Young people have had such an inconsistent experience that it’s impossible for them to be going into exams with equity in how they have been taught.’

With some exams scheduled to take place next week, many of the region’s headteachers are now calling for urgent clarity in how pupils are to be assessed.

Park Community School headteacher Chris Anders said: ‘We await guidance and some clarity and hope that it will come quickly. Again this was something many heads were expecting regardless of what the government said.

‘Their pronouncements seemed to be based on wishes rather than the reality of life in schools around the country. I hope that whatever system is put in place is fair and allows for some form of moderation along with sufficient time for schools to be able to organise all that may be required.

Portsmouth College principal Simon Barrable added: ‘With the amount of disruption to learning nationwide since last March, it has become clear that running a fair exam season this summer has become nigh on impossible.

‘What we now need is absolute clarity on what replaces those exams, as soon as possible, so we avoid the very difficult circumstances students, staff and parents were confronted with last summer.’

However Priory School headteacher Stewart Vaughan has urged the government ‘not to rush into a decision’.

Mr Vaughan said: ‘Following the fiasco of last summer I hope lessons have been learned and their is a full consultation with schools and colleges.’

Headteachers were also keen to highlight the ‘stress and uncertainty' the announcement will have placed on students.

Head of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Emma Maynard, said: ‘The immediate closure of school sites is a huge issue for children and families, with significant risks of isolation, mental health stressors and learning loss. In particular news of the potential cancellation of public exams will be a major stress to families and it’s essential that the government clarifies this as an absolute priority.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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