Portsmouth headteachers plead with parents to only send children to school if ‘you really need to’

SOME of the city’s headteachers are having limit numbers of children attending school due to fears of ‘being overwhelmed’ with levels of attendance which could contribute to a rise in Covid infection levels.

By Neil Fatkin
Friday, 8th January 2021, 3:44 pm
Updated Friday, 8th January 2021, 4:16 pm

While Boris Johnson announced that schools should close to the majority of pupils – admitting that children were vectors in the spread of rising cases – a broadening of key worker and vulnerable children eligible to attend for face to face teaching has resulted in concerns schools are having to open their doors to ‘up to 50 per cent’ of their populations.

A key reason for the surge in pupil attendance compared to the first lockdown is the widening of ‘vulnerable children’ to include ‘those who cannot access remote learning either because they do not have devices or space to study’. Children are also eligible if only one parent is a keyworker.

Milton Park Primary School headteacher Wendy Fowler wrote to parents asking them to only send children in ‘if they really need to’.

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Concerns have been raised after the large number of primary school children who have turned up for school compared to the first lockdown. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Mrs Fowler stated: ‘The government has broadened the definitions of eligible children and schools, including ours, have had a much bigger set of requests for places and are being overwhelmed with numbers.

‘The danger is the numbers of children that attend on site could mean that the public health imperative to restrict movement and contacts is compromised.

‘So far, we have been sticking to the government guidance regarding places, but our numbers are going up daily. I’m therefore at a point where I’m requesting that you please only request a place for your children if you really do need it.’

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Wendy Fowler (right) with children from Milton Park Primary School. Mrs Fowler has written to parents asking them to only send their children to school if they 'really need to'.

While Lyndhurst Junior School headteacher Ali Beechurst has not yet asked parents not to send children in, she said the school is ‘operating at capacity’ and has put measures in place to potentially limit numbers.

Mrs Beechurst said: ‘At the moment we have around 36 per cent of our pupils in school – which is a large number of children and parents picking up and collecting children from school. During the first lockdown we had between 20 and 40 pupils.

‘On Monday we asked all parents of key worker and vulnerable children to confirm if they required a place and we have also asked for evidence of eligibility. We made clear that for anyone who did not do so it was assumed they did not need a place.

‘If we are to operate small bubble sizes and continue to provide remote learning then this will become impossible with more children.’

Lyndhurst Junior School headteacher Ali Beechurst (left) is concerned about the 'immense pressure' on teachers having to juggle teaching large numbers of children in school with delivering remote lessons. Picture: Sarah Standing (110220-7391)

With Key Stage 2 children (Year 3 to 6) entitled to four hours a day of remote teaching Mrs Beechurst is concerned about the practicalities of delivering this alongside the demands of educating large numbers of pupils in school.

She said: ‘This has placed immense pressure on staff to deliver both sets of teaching effectively. If we end up with large numbers of children in school then it defeats the point of the lockdown.

‘We want to keep group sizes small to keep people safe but we can only do that if a sizeable number of children are at home.’

Portsmouth City Council’s cabinet member for education, Cllr Suzy Horton, who said the decision on whether to limit student numbers was at the discretion of individual schools but that she would support them if they deemed it necessary.

Lyndhurst Junior School has seen 36 per cent of children turn up for school despite the lockdown.

Cllr Horton said: ‘We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of children attending school compared to the first lockdown. It’s laudable to ensure all children have access to education but if all keyworker pupils are in school along with an expanded number of vulnerable children who don’t have access to remote learning then this could lead to 50 per cent attendance which will be in conflict with infection control and the reason behind the lockdown.’

The large numbers of pupils attending school will be of concern to the teaching unions with the National Education Union (NEU) having advised its members not to attend school at the start of term if they felt unsafe.

Portsmouth teacher and former NEU president Amanda Martin said: ‘During the last lockdown only five percent of eligible children took up places but we are now seeing much larger numbers.

‘This week the government has been caught widening the definition of key worker and vulnerable children. If the government is serious about having more children in school during this lockdown then it should reduce group sizes to minimise transmission risks. However with current staff already engaged in providing remote learning this will require more staff.’

Ms Martin believes the dramatic increase in lockdown attendance is also due to confusion ‘caused by mixed messages from the government that schools are safe’ and an acceptance from parents that their ‘children are unlikely to get ill’.

A Department for Education spokesman said: ‘Schools are open for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. We expect schools to work with families to ensure all critical worker children are given access to a place if this is required.

‘If critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time then they should do so, but otherwise this provision is in place to enable them to provide vital services.’

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