Portsmouth education leaders say government's primary school plan was 'bonkers'

EDUCATION leaders have hit out at the government, labelling them ‘bonkers’ for ‘taking so long to realise it was not possible’ after education secretary, Gavin Williamson, confirmed they were no longer going ahead with plans to fully reopen primary schools by the end of June.

Tuesday, 9th June 2020, 2:43 pm
Updated Tuesday, 9th June 2020, 6:54 pm

Following the government’s announcement that Year R, 1 and 6 pupils should return to school on June 1, the prime minister also set out his intentions that all primary school children should have the opportunity for at least four weeks of time in school before the end of term.

However, with concerns remaining over social distancing and government guidelines setting out maximum ‘bubbles’ of fifteen pupils, headteachers, including many in Portsmouth, and the teaching unions raised objections to the proposal.

Addressing Parliament, Mr Williamson conceded: ‘While we are not able to welcome primary children back for a full month before the summer we continue to work with the sector on the next steps. We would like to see schools who have the capacity, to bring back more children.’

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Portsmouth City Council's cabinet member for education, Cllr Suzy Horton, said she thought it was "bonkers" it had taken so long for the government to reverse its plan for all primary school children to return.

While welcoming the apparent u-turn, Portsmouth City Council’s cabinet member for education, Suzy Horton, has been left ‘dismayed’ it has taken so long for the government to realise the proposal was not practical.

Lib Dem Cllr Horton said: ‘I’m staggered it has taken so long to work out what was suggested was completely bonkers. We have been expecting this decision as without magically expanding schools there simply isn’t the building space or number of teachers to teach full schools with groups of no more than 15.’

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It’s a sentiment shared by Portsmouth teacher and National Education Union president, Amanda Martin.

Copnor Primary School headteacher, Doug Brawley, said under the current guidelines the maximum number of children the school could accommodate is 225 out of 685 children.

Ms Martin said: ‘It has taken the government some time to realise what was obvious to most. The government's social distancing rules made it impossible for primary schools to admit all pupils before the summer holidays.’

Copnor Primary School headteacher Douglas Brawley was one of many school leaders who had previously expressed concerns about adhering to government guidelines while opening to more pupils. In a letter to parents he said: ‘We have approached it from so many angles now and we just don’t have the capacity to get it to work, whilst staying within the guidelines.’

Speaking to The News, Mr Brawley said he welcomed the Department for Education’s change of stance and hoped it was ‘a sign the government were starting to listen to headteachers’.

Mr Brawley said: ‘Even with maximum bubbles of 15 the most pupils we could accommodate at any one time is 225 – a full school is 685 children. The most we can have at Copnor is our current 15 pods and even with that it’s difficult to spread the room out to be two metres apart.’

While schools are no longer under pressure to welcome back all students, the government have left it up to headteachers to decide how many children they can safely accommodate.

Mr Brawley added: ‘Hopefully this is a sign the government are listening and giving greater autonomy to headteachers on the ground to make their own judgements.’

While keen for children to return, the experienced headteacher also cast doubt on whether the situation will be any different come the start of the academic year.

‘I’m not confident by the start of September that schools will be ready to go – this is certainly not a guarantee,’ said Mr Brawley.

If infection rates remain a concern and social distancing is still in place at the end of the summer holidays then Mr Brawley feels the only way all children could get some time in the classroom is on a rota basis – a route which headteachers say the government has so far been reluctant to go down.

‘It would have to be on at least a fortnightly basis which would give time across a weekend for classrooms to be deep cleaned and for anyone who was infected to self-isolate. Having children on a daily or weekly rota would be a risk of potential infection,’ he said.

Cllr Horton added: ‘The council is currently planning for a range of different potential scenarios for September. However, to get all children some time in school would need the government to revisit the idea of a rota.

‘I think the most likely outcome for the foreseeable future is a situation of blended learning combining time in the classroom with online learning.’

Despite today’s announcement, fellow city councillor and shadow cabinet member for education, Terry Norton, believes schools should continue to partially reopen to welcome back more children.

Cllr Norton said: ‘Many parents are concerned about their children not being in school. Getting children back into school must be a priority for the government and council who have allowed too many schools to adopt an inconsistent approach to reopening.

‘I urge all schools not open to do so as soon as possible, with limited attendance.’

Speaking in anticipation of the expected statement, Hampshire County Council’s executive member for education, Cllr Roz Chadd, said: ‘Should the government confirm that primary schools do not need to prepare for opening for all pupils, we will continue to support schools in their work to ensure those pupils who remain at home have the help they need to continue a basic level of learning and remain engaged with school and fellow pupils.’

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