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Heads: Schools must stay open for second lockdown

Camden branch of union in favour of staying open

05 November, 2020 — By Harry Taylor

HEADTEACHERS and the branch secretary of the largest teaching union in Camden have rejected calls for the borough’s schools to shut this week as part of the new coronavirus lockdown.

Nationally, the NEU (National Education Union) has argued that measures aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19 will be undermined if schools stay open.

Kevin Courtney, its joint general secretary who is a former convenor in Camden, said: “It is clear from ONS [Office for National Statistics] data that schools are an engine for virus transmission. It would be self-defeating for the government to impose a national lockdown whilst ignoring the role of schools as a major contributor to the spread of the virus.”

But Gerald Clark, who leads the local Camden branch of the NEU, had a different view.

“The majority of members have told me that they feel safe in schools and the NEU’s position is not the position of most Camden teachers,” he said. “I asked members for their thoughts and that wasn’t a concern that was raised. The national union has obviously come out with this on Friday night. It isn’t something that has been debated within our union.”

He added: “There has been an awful lot of change for our members and they want to do the best that they can and the best for the pupils they teach. The vast majority are pleased to be back in the classroom again. There is a significant proportion of members who are anxious about safety, but the majority of members have told me that they feel safe.”

There remains concern over how Camden pupils could suffer if schools did close, with not all having access to computers for online learning at home. Since they returned to classrooms in September, hand-sanitising, year-group bubbles, social distancing and the wearing of masks has become part of the daily ritual for pupils and staff.

Keeping schools open is one of the starkest differences from the first lockdown when they only remained open for the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils.

John Hayes, head at Gospel Oak Primary School, said: “I know that for the majority of children, school is obviously the best place for them right now. There was always going to be particularly vulnerable children where we provide an oasis for them and we realise it’s even more important to these children than in normal times.”

Gospel Oak has sent some “bubbles” home but all of its pupils are now back in the classroom.

Matt Sadler, the new headteacher of Hampstead School in Westbere Road, said he understood the NEU’s national position, but added: “We want to stay open. Our whole team have worked tirelessly to reduce risk in reopening and our high attendance rates suggest we have the confidence of students and parents.”

Mr Sadler said the school would work with the unions, adding that it “would support a part or full closure if transmission rates continue to rise and staying open poses a significant risk to our students, staff and the community”.

And there was a similar view at University College School in Hampstead.

Assistant headteacher Edd Roberts said: “The view we all take is that it’s important we are going as long as we possibly can do – it’s so important for the kids’ mental health and learning. There’s no substitute for face-to-face teaching and learning, and we need to keep that going for as long as we can.”

The Town Hall’s education chief, Councillor Angela Mason, said: “The best place for all children and young people is to be in full-time education. We also know that some disadvantaged pupils have been at risk of falling behind during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, so I think it’s right to keep schools open during the second lockdown.”

She added: “We recognise there have been a number of cases of Covid-19 at our schools, and we are continuing to work closely alongside schools and Public Health to manage any confirmed cases and to ensure staff and pupils are kept as safe as possible.”

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