‘Scrap arbitrary date for wider reopening of West Sussex schools’

West Sussex schools must let go of an ‘arbitrary’ date for wider reopening set by the government, a union has urged.

The vast majority of school children have been off since late March (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) SUS-201105-155734001
The vast majority of school children have been off since late March (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) SUS-201105-155734001

The Department for Education announced Monday, June 1, as the earliest date primary schools in England may be able to welcome back primary school children in nursery, reception, Year 1 and Year 6 as the lockdown eases.

Last week West Sussex County Council said it had held detailed discussions with school and academy representatives and unions across the county to consider the government’s position that schools should begin to reopen from next month.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

The aim is for a phased return to start from June 1 and the county council said schools were showing support for this approach, with individual risk assessments identifying how this can best be managed safely for pupils and staff.

Days later the National Education Union criticised WSCC’s approach. It claimed a number of West Sussex schools will not open more widely on June 1 with a number of headteachers calling for reassurances from the government.

James Ellis, NEU regional officer, said they wanted children to return to school as soon as possible but only when safe. The union’s five tests to measure this ‘have not been met’.

He added: “This system just isn’t ready yet and so we believe West Sussex County Council is acting too hastily.”

The NEU claims primary schools run both by The Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT) and The University of Brighton Academies Trust have already confirmed they will not yet open more widely on June 1.

The latter declined to comment, but a spokesman for TKAT said: “We have decided to use the week beginning June 1 to ensure our schools are safe and our staff are fully trained, in order to be ready to partially reopen our secondary schools later that week and our primary schools on the 8th June.”

TKAT runs Broadfield Primary Academy, Seymour Primary Academy, Hilltop Primary, Thomas Bennett Community College, The Bewbush Academy, The Mill Primary Academy and The Oaks Primary School, all in Crawley, Chichester High School, Portfield Primary Academy in Chichester, Seal Primary Academy in Selsey, The Academy - Selsey and the Tangmere Primary Academy.

Meanwhile the University of Brighton Academies Trust runs Holmbush Primary Academy in Shoreham, The Burgess Hill Academy, Lindfield Primary Academy, Blackthorns Community Primary Academy also in Lindfield as well as Pound Hill Infant Academy and Desmond Anderson Primary Academy both in Crawley.

Anne Barker, NEU West Sussex joint branch secretary and health and safety officer, said safety was the main concern and time was needed for meaningful consultation with staff on risk assessments before making any final decisions. “We are ready to do that on the basis of our five tests and our checklist, but schools must let go of this arbitrary June 1 date,” she said.

Meanwhile UNISON, which represents support staff - who make up half of the workforce in schools - called for better consultation as there has currently been a ‘failure to engage the unions in the way they should be’.

UNISON branch secretary Dan Sartin said: “The inability to consult has meant an erratic approach to the 1 June re-opening. Schools have had information which is wrong and needed to be corrected days later, or very late, or which is unclear.

“This has just made a bad situation much worse in our view. The director needs to work with us and accept we are important stakeholders with legal rights we can use to protect our members’ health in this terrible situation. 80 per cent of our members are women and most of them are low-paid. We won’t apologise for standing up for them when many are terrified about catching the virus and the impact it will have on them and their families.”

A county council spokesman said: “We are extremely grateful to the school leaders, teachers and staff for their continued dedication in supporting pupils to learn from home and for enabling vulnerable children and those with key worker parents to safely remain in school.

“In line with current national guidance, we are working with schools to plan for the start of a phased, wider reopening from the beginning of next month and have agreed some guiding principles to enable this to happen in a safe and managed way.

“Core to these principles is that any phased return needs to be led by each individual school’s risk assessment of how this can be managed in a way that is safe for all pupils and staff.

“We are asking schools to continue to prioritise vulnerable and key worker children and also those who are disadvantaged and have limited access to online learning

“Everyone involved in education in West Sussex wants what’s best for our children – to keep them safe and keep them learning.”

“We have been delighted by the response from our schools in supporting the efforts to phase our young children back into learning and in the ways they are planning for this.”

Meanwhile more than 40 Labour councillors from local authorities across West Sussex have signed an open letter to the county council urging it tooppose the governments plans to reopen schools in the county on June 1, citing concerns about the negative impact on public health and the risk of a premature unsafe reopening causing a second wave of coronavirus infections.

Michael Jones, Labour group leader at County Hall, said: “This headlong rush by the Government to get children back to school risks a second wave of the coronavirus worse than the first. As local representatives, we could not have it on our consciences to stand meekly by while the county council goes along with this, there are so many health risks and practical problems which can’t and won’t be addressed satisfactorily in the time available.”

Karen Sudan, a fellow Labour county councillor and a former deputy headteacher, added: “Much has been said about the ways that staff will manage children’s return to school in such a way as to meet the requirements for social distancing. We have all seen images of teachers rearranging tables in empty classrooms.

“In reality, it is not possible to meet social-distancing and other requirements and, at the same time, manage things so that children are able to thrive and learn. The only way to keep children more than one metre apart from one another at all times would be if they were to sit in one place the whole time.

“Even if this was possible – think about your own children and those you know – it is not healthy. It is essential for children’s wellbeing that they are active – not to mention the stress and psychological damage caused by expecting young humans to behave in a way that is totally unnatural.”

A message from the Editor, Gary Shipton:

In order for us to continue to provide high quality and trusted local news, I am asking you to please purchase a copy of our newspapers.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers - and consequently the advertising that we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news and information by buying a copy of our newspapers.

Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the most rigorous standards in the world. But being your eyes and ears comes at a price. So we need your support more than ever to buy our newspapers during this crisis.

Stay safe, and best wishes.