Portsmouth headteachers share safety concerns – as council says schools can stay closed

HEADTEACHERS in Portsmouth have expressed concerns about the reopening of schools next month – but the city council has said they do not have to open before June 15.

The government is targeting a June 1 return for Reception, Year 1 and 6 pupils.

But after an independent scientific report described the plan as a ‘dangerous decision’ and recommended a delay of at least another two weeks, Portsmouth City Council has now said it ‘will respect the decision’ of schools if they want to remain shut.

The council’s cabinet member for education, Councillor Suzy Horton, said: ‘In the light of the report, some schools will feel that it is right to wait for another two weeks before opening for additional children, while continuing to teach and care for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.

Ark Dickens Primary Academy headteacher, Fiona Chapman, said in a letter to parents that the school may not accommodate all the year groups stipulated by the government.

‘Where local authority maintained schools wish to wait until June 15 before wider opening, assuming this is allowed by the government, we will respect that decision.

‘This will give them more time for detailed planning which many will find helpful.’

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The report by so-called independent Sage was led by the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King.

Copnor Primary School headteacher, Douglas Brawley, said the school doesn't 'have the capacity to get it to work, whilst staying within the guidelines'. Picture: Malcolm Wells

Sir David said: ‘It is clear from the evidence we have collected that June 1 is simply too early to go back.

‘By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike.’

In light of this advice, Cllr Horton said she understands why some schools may wish to delay reopening beyond the proposed date.

Cllr Horton added: ‘We respect the expertise of Sir David King and his colleagues, which needs to be considered carefully. The unofficial report recommends a delay of two weeks before additional children return to school.’

A number of schools across the city have confirmed they cannot accommodate all the year groups identified by the government for a June 1 return. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images.

The council's blessing comes after the proposed timetable of return had been strongly criticised by headteachers.

At least four schools in Portsmouth had already said they were unable to have back all Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 groups as stipulated by the government.

Headteachers have concerns that even if they are open to all three year groups, and keep taking key workers’ children, they may struggle with staffing numbers.

This is because schools are reducing class sizes thereby increasing the number of staff needed, with one headteacher outlining how pupils will be in 15-strong ‘bubble’ groups wearing colour-coded wristbands.

Following a report expressing concerns about children returning to school, Portsmouth City Council's cabinet member for education, Cllr Suzy Horton, has said the council will 'respect' the decision of schools which decide to remain closed for another two weeks.

Howard Payne, Medina Primary School headteacher, had warned teachers have not been given enough information to protect pupils and staff.

He said: ‘Schools, as yet, are not getting the answers from the medical experts or the government that makes me feel 100 per cent certain that all members of the school community will be safe.’

Mr Payne told The News 50 per cent of parents said they are not going to be sending their children - with some even saying they would not allow them to return before there is a vaccine.

The council’s shift in stance will come as a welcome relief to some parents. Surveys found between a third to a half of all parents at various city schools were unwilling to send their children back into classes from June 1.

Carolina Garcia Canton’s oldest son Hueo, six, goes to St Swithun's Catholic Primary School.

The 39-year-old Southsea mum-of-two said the school had been brilliant but criticised government for leaving the choices down to schools and parents.

‘My issue is with the lack of ownership and accountability,’ she said. ‘They are literally leaving the decision to every school headteacher and parent - there’s no accountability.’

Even if schools do reopen in two weeks, many will be faced with the same challenge of trying to accommodate children under the new guidelines which insist classes must not be bigger than 15 pupils.

Copnor Primary School headteacher, Douglas Brawley, told parents: ‘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.’

In a letter to parents, Southsea Infant School headteacher Lyndsey Cook, added: ‘Unfortunately at this point in time we are unable to bring back our Year 1 children and are uncertain if or when this might happen in the future.

‘Government guidance on class sizes would need to change from the current maximum of 15 in order for us to do this.’

It is a similar situation at Ark Dickens Primary School.

In a letter to parents, school principal, Fiona Chapman, said: ‘In order to prioritise the safety of our pupils and staff, we may not be able to accommodate all the year groups the government has identified.’

Solent Infant School had already made clear its initial plans not to extend opening.

In a joint letter, The De Curci Trust told parents to ‘kindly note that we do not anticipate that our schools will be in a position to expand their current onsite provision’ in the week after half term.

The decision of the council to ‘respect’ the choice of schools to remain closed follows on from widespread criticism of the government from the teaching unions.

After reading both reports, Portsmouth teacher and National Education Union president, Amanda Martin, said: ‘The government must finally relent on its arbitrary target date of June 1 and accept it is simply not yet safe for the wider opening.

‘Schools and families cannot go on with such uncertainty.’

Education secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to make a final decision on May 28. Hampshire County Council is awaiting this confirmation.

Executive member for education, Councillor Roz Chadd, said: ‘The prime minister has set an ambition for schools to further partially re-open to specific year groups on June 1.

‘The final decision to do this will be made by the government and will be based upon an analysis of scientific advice, nearer to that date.

‘If the government confirms that schools should re-open on a phased basis, and continue support for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, each school will inform its parents and carers of the arrangements they are able to put in place, having conducted the necessary risk assessments.’

See here for further details on Portsmouth City Council’s stance.

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