National Education Union leader's call for extended half-term ‘circuit break’ gains support

PORTSMOUTH teacher and president of the UK’s biggest teaching union, Amanda Martin, has called on the government to use a two-week extended October half-term as part of a ‘circuit break’ to curtail the spread of coronavirus.

By Neil Fatkin
Monday, 19th October 2020, 3:52 pm
Updated Monday, 19th October 2020, 5:47 pm

The proposal would see Portsmouth and Hampshire schools closed for an additional period during the first week of November.

A statement on the National Education Union’s (NEU) website said: ‘In the face of rapidly rising infection levels amongst secondary pupils, the NEU is calling for an urgent circuit breaker to suppress Covid cases.

‘Alongside other nationwide measures to suppress coronavirus, schools and colleges should be closed for two weeks at half-term for secondary and post-16 students.’

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Portsmouth teacher and National Education Union president, Amanda Martin, has called for schools to have an extended half term as part of a 'circuit break' lockdown. Picture: Russell Sach Photography

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The stance comes as the incidence of coronavirus in Portsmouth schools increased to 17, five of which resulted in no need for additional pupils to self-isolate. General community transmission is also on the increase with the latest figures showing an infection rate of 99.6/100,000 during the seven day period up to October 11.

Ms Martin said: ‘The latest infection survey report from the Office for National Statistics (October 16) shows infection rates rising sharply amongst secondary age pupils - much more sharply than in any section of the population apart from university students.

Could schools have an extended half term holiday as part of a circuit breaker lockdown? Photograph: Michael Gillen.

‘This should be no surprise to either the prime minister or the Department for Education - scientists have consistently told them that secondary students transmit the virus as much as adults and we have warned them that because we have amongst the biggest class sizes in Europe we have overcrowded classrooms and corridors without effective social distancing.

‘Such a circuit breaker could allow the government to get control of the test, track and trace system and get cases lower to allow the system to work better.’

While the extended holiday would result in children – many of whom have already missed four months of schooling – being out of the classroom for an additional week, Ms Martin feels it would minimise disruption in the long-run with an increasing number of students and associated ‘bubbles’ having to be sent home as Covid cases both regionally and nationally continue to rise.

Thirty five Year 10 students at Park Community School in Havant had to isolate last week after one of their classmates tested positive for coronavirus.

Horndean Technology College headteacher, Julie Summerfield, has said she would 'not be against' the idea of a an extended half term circuit breaker but remains concerned about the impact on pupils education. Picture by: Malcolm Wells

Ms Martin added: ‘Headteachers, teachers and school staff understand the educational impact of this, but we also understand that in exponential epidemics early action is essential. Taking action now can avoid more disruption later.’

The stance is supported by Portsmouth City Council’s cabinet member for education, Suzy Horton, but only if it’s part of a wider national lockdown and not exclusive to schools.

Cllr Horton said: ‘I would be supportive of a circuit breaker but for it to work it would need to cover many aspects of society – not just schools. If a circuit breaker is needed then incorporating additional time around half term would seem like a sensible idea.’

Conservative councillor and shadow cabinet member for education, Terry Norton, said he would also back the proposal but only if there’s evidence supporting its impact.

Cllr Norton said: ‘We must take decisions that are governed by science and not feeling. I would therefore welcome a ‘circuit breaker’ and even go as far as supporting them every half term but only if government scientists can confirm they would reduce Covid spread.

‘Portsmouth is currently at the lowest risk level thanks to the vast majority who have complied with the rules. This has not been the case in all cities and Portsmouth children should not be penalised for the recklessness of others.’

The proposal has received a cautious response from some of the region’s headteachers who remain concerned about the learning time many pupils have already missed.

Julie Summerfield, headteacher at Horndean Technology College, said: ‘We obviously want to make sure the virus doesn’t spread any more rapidly but schools have not been reopened long and the children are just getting into the swing of being back.

‘I would not be against it in terms of ensuring health and safety but it could lead to even less time for GCSE students to prepare for their examinations.’

Lyndhurst Junior School headteacher, Ali Beechurst, added: ‘I think this would be an incredibly difficult decision and there are arguments on both sides.

‘Our primary concern is always the welfare of staff and students and we will always follow whatever the advice says and support the decision of the local authority.’

School children in Northern Ireland are already having a two week half-term as part of a four week lockdown.

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