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Former Labour education secretary David Blunkett has launched a savage attack on teaching unions, accusing them of “working against” the interests of the poorest pupils hit hardest by the Covid-19 lockdown.
Blunkett declared that children are a low risk category and suggested that teachers ought to follow the example of supermarket workers and care workers who carried on with their jobs.
The peer hit out after the National Education Union (NEU) and others representing staff in schools warned ministers that safety fears should force them to “step back” from their plans to reopen primaries from June 1.
Unions seized on remarks by the department for education’s chief scientific adviser in which he said he had not assessed the impact of the reopening and there was a “low confidence” in studies suggesting children did not transmit the virus as much as adults.
NEU chief Mary Bousted highlighted Osama Rahman’s admission that the latest guidance for schools was in “draft” form, as well as his comment that children could “possibly” become vectors for coronavirus.
With just 12 working days to the June 1 reopening, she said clearer scientific evidence was needed and praised the Scottish and Welsh governments for being more cautious in not setting any such date.
“Listen, if we could say that children can go back into class and there is a low or a reasonable risk that they will not go into school, will not infect each other, will not infect the staff in school and will not go home and infect their parents and their relatives then it would be wonderful, wouldn’t it, if schools could reopen because that is what we all want to happen,” Bousted said.
But Blunkett told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that teaching unions appeared to overestimate the risks and should instead work constructively to get children into the classroom from next month.
“I’m really surprised at Mary and her colleagues’ attitude on this. I’m being deeply critical of the attitude,” he said.
“It’s about how can we work together to make it work as safely as possible. Anyone who works against that in my view is working against the interests of children.”
In his most provocative remarks, he even appeared to ridicule teachers who take part in the clap for key workers every Thursday evening.
“Tens of thousands of really good teachers, they’ve been shopping and thanking the people on the counters in supermarkets and shops, or they’ve got parents who are being cared for by those carers in those homes. They thank them and they know they are taking a risk,” he said.
“I know that in asking teachers from June 1 very carefully, with the best possible advice, with risk assessment, with cleaning, with testing, to go back and start teaching those children, that has to be in the best interests of the most disadvantaged in our country.
“[Children] who will not have tutors to be able to recover, who will not have parents in higher education, who will rely entirely on us getting back to normal as quickly as possible.”
The government plans a phased return of primary school pupils from next month, plus some teacher time for the crucial pre-GCSE and pre-A-level years before the summer break.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson hit out on Wednesday at “scaremongering” over his proposals, and stressed the need for the poorest youngsters to catch up on education missed during the lockdown.
DfE insiders point out that safe distancing and protective masks will be less necessary once primary schools operate safe bubbles of 15-strong groups of children and teachers who don’t interact with others. More cleaning, and the promise of swift testing, are part of the new plans.
Conservative MPs point to the experience of Denmark, where teaching unions have signed up to gradual return of pupils with safeguards in place.
Some Labour MPs such as Barry Sheerman have also criticised unions for their stance in recent days, and Blunkett let rip at shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey.
“It’s about an attitude of mind... about whether we can work together to do it or whether we can work against it. I advise both teachers and their representatives and my front bench to work together to actually find a way of gradually from June 1 getting children back into school,” he said.
“Why? Because the children of the highly educated, of the well-off, of the better-informed, have been getting some form of education over the last few weeks.
“In the end this is a matter of risk…. we know that children transmit the disease less than adults, they are less likely to get it and therefore they are less likely to be a risk.”
“We’ve got a vast swath of youngsters with varying degrees of online teaching...with some children actually getting nothing, some teachers really pulling this out to make this work and to be there for the children, and other schools which are not.”
Blunkett faced a swift backlash from teachers and others on Twitter, who accused him of misrepresenting the current uncertain science and of long having an anti-union agenda.
But he won the backing of former No.10 aide and schools campaigner Fiona Millar.