Head teachers' union tells members to get back in the classroom

Breakthrough in plan to reopen schools as head teachers’ union breaks ranks and tells members getting back in the classroom is no more dangerous than any other profession

  • Head teachers’ union ASCL have said it is safe for schools to reopen on June 1
  • National Association of Head Teachers said it would support government plans
  • Education Secretary Gavin Williamson outlined phased reopening yesterday
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Britain’s head teachers’ union has backed plans for schools to reopen on June 1 following meetings with key government advisers.

The Association of School and College Leaders claim teachers were no more at risk than any other profession heading back to work as coronavirus lockdown restrictions ease.

Early-years union The National Association of Head Teachers said it would support government plans to reopen primary schools following advice from scientists. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday outlined the plans for reception, year 1 and 6 – as well as years 10 and 12 – to return from June 1.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday outlined the plans for reception, year 1 and 6 – as well as years 10 and 12 – to return from June 1 

Countries including Denmark (pictured) have already begun reopening schools with social distancing measures in place

He insisted that pupils ‘stand to lose more by staying away from school’. 

What safety measures are planned to reduce coronavirus in schools? 

Ministers have unveiled a raft of measures to keep pupils who do return to school safe from coronavirus.

They include: 

  • Classes of no more than 15 pupils
  • Socially distanced desks
  • Children told to only mix in small groups, with those groups not mixing with others.
  • Increased and regular cleaning of schools 
  • Staggered lunch and break times
  • Staggered arrivals and departures
  • Packed lunches
  • No shared classroom equipment 

He outlined measures schools will take avoid a surge in the killer disease which has killed 34,500 people in the UK and infected 241,000.

Measures include small classes and keeping children in small socially-distanced groups.

A group of five former education secretaries – Labour’s Alan Johnson and Charles Clarke and Conservatives Nicky Morgan, Damian Hinds and Justine Greening – all support the government’s plans for reopening schools in phases, The Times reports.

Ms Greening said: ‘Despite many parents’ best efforts to keep education going in difficult circumstances, this time out of school will create an even bigger opportunity gap later.

‘Our children and young people need to be back in school and other countries like Denmark show that it’s possible to put in place a workable plan.’

Mr Hinds added: ‘The plan to get more children returning from June 1 is a very cautious and gradual one and follows the broad pattern across Europe.’

He said the effects of not being in school have been ‘felt by children throughout the country, especially the most disadvantaged’.

Denmark (pictured) was the first country in Europe to reopen its schools for its youngest pupils

Schools have also opened in France (Paris, pictured) with teachers wearing masks as they assist their students

He said it is ‘right’ that there is transparency about how plans are being made and that is why bodies including the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has published papers.

On schools, the Department for Education has published a summary of the evidence, he added.

‘As parents, we want to know what the background to this is,’ Mr Hinds said.

‘This is still a couple of weeks away. Over that period, people will have the opportunity to hear more about it and build confidence.

Young children ARE as likely to get coronavirus as adults, says deputy chief medical officer

Dr Jenny Harries warned children are one of the two groups that are potentially at risk of contracting the virus, but said they ‘don’t get as ill’ and are ‘less likely to pass it on’, during Saturday’s coronavirus news briefing.

Previous research has shown infants are not as likely to become infected by coronavirus than adults and, if they do, show milder symptoms, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr Harries said: ‘There are two groups that are at potential risk here, one are children.

‘We think that children probably have the same level of infection, we are just going through that data now with the ONS (Office of National Statistics) survey, but they don’t get as ill.

‘We rarely see children in hospital in proportion to the older population. 

‘And for younger children as well, the evidence is still growing but there may be some evidence that they are less likely to pass it on.’ 

‘It is in everybody’s best interests that children can go back to school.’ 

Mr Hinds also paid tribute to the ‘extraordinary’ job teachers have done in the last few weeks as he said that different children have had different experiences of learning during the lockdown.

Asked about current arguments over whether or not it is too early for children to begin to return to school, Mr Hinds told BBC Breakfast: ‘I think ultimately everybody is on the same page.’

He said that among the teachers he has spoken to ‘of course there are concerns about safety’, adding that is why there is a ‘comprehensive plan’.

But Mr Hinds added that ‘these teachers really want to be back teaching kids’.

But plans have been met by criticism from trade unions, ministers and local authorities over the safety of sending children back to school.

Speaking on Sky News this morning, Labour MP Rachel Reeves said: ‘This isn’t just about schools, this is about wider issues around easing some of the lockdown restrictions.

‘But the anxiety teachers and parents face would be a lot less if we had that test, trace and isolate strategy in place.

‘We want that to be up and running to ease the whole range of the lockdown restrictions.

‘But specifically on schools we want the Government to work with the teachers, parents and teaching unions to give them confidence and to publish the science upon which the decision is being made to reopen schools.’

Ms Reeves said the Government has two weeks to put in place the test and trace approach, hold talks with the relevant parties and publish the science before schools are due to welcome more pupils through their gates.

She added: ‘The Government has got a lot more work to do to give that confidence that it’ll be safe to have more children coming into school in two weeks’ time.’

Hartlepool in County Durham joined Liverpool yesterday in saying it would ignore the Government’s plan to let some primary school pupils back to the school from June 1. 

Concerns have been echoed by The British Medical Association who warned the number of coronavirus cases was still too high to open schools safely.

In Belgium, a teacher wears a visor to protect herself as she teachers her class in Sint-Marten-Latem

Some children returned to school on Friday as Belgium further eased its two-month coronavirus lockdown

In a letter to National Education Union general secretary Kevin Courtney on Friday, the BMA council’s chairman , Chaand Nagpau said: ‘We cannot risk a second spike or take actions which would increase the spread of this virus, particularly as we see sustained rates of infection across the UK.’

He added: ‘Until we have got case numbers much lower, we should not consider reopening schools.’

In contrast, the Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield asked ‘unions to stop ‘squabbling’ because it would be ‘extremely damaging’ to keep children away from school.

A group of five former education secretaries – including Damian Hinds (right) and Justine Greening (left) – all support the government’s plans for reopening schools in phases

Ms Longfield has urged the sector to aspire for all children to return to school in some form before the summer, and to use school buildings for summer schools and family support over the holidays.

She said: ‘We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school.

‘It’s time to stop squabbling and agree a staggered, safe return that is accompanied by rigorous testing of teachers, children and families.’

The President of the National Education Union, Amanda Martin, is planning on joining Jeremy Corbyn at a ‘virtual rally’ to tell activists how they can ‘resist’ the Government plans, the newspaper also reported. 

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School union bosses hit out at Boris Johnson's 'irresponsible' plan

School union bosses hit out at Boris Johnson’s ‘irresponsible’ plan to get reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils back from June 1 – as 300,000 parents sign petition to keep children at home

  • Kevin Courtney, general secretary of NEU, said a June 1 return is ‘irresponsible’ 
  • Boris Johnson said primary school pupils could return to class from next month
  • Those in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 would be first to go back in phased return 

A schools’ union boss has accused the government of being ‘irresponsible’ to suggest the ‘big majority’ of primary school children could return to classrooms by June 1.   

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told Sky News that Boris Johnson’s plan to begin a phased return to schools from next month ‘at the earliest’ is ‘reckless’.

In an address last night, the prime minister said pupils in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 would be the first to go back from the start of next month as part of a staged process.

Nurseries would also be covered in the initial phase and the hope is that all primary school children would return to classrooms by the summer.

‘At the earliest by June 1, after half term, we believe we may be in a position to begin the phased reopening of shops and to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages,’ he said.

Mr Johnson added these were the ‘first careful steps’ and the timeline for reopening schools could be delayed if necessary. 

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told Sky News that Boris Johnson’s plan to begin a phased return to schools from next month ‘at the earliest’ is ‘reckless’

NEU boss Mr Courtney criticised these proposals this morning, asking how teachers could possibly adhere to social distancing measures in classes of 30 or more pupils.

He added that the union has set ‘five sensible tests’ they believe ‘need to be in place’ in order for schools to reopen, including a low case count and social distancing in schools.

‘We want lockdown to end, we want that to happen as soon as it safely can and we are not being irresponsible,’ he said. ‘We’ve said the case count in the country needs to be down low enough so that contact tracing can take over some of the work of social isolation but the case count is nowhere near those sorts of levels.

‘We’ve said our second plan is they need to have social distancing in schools – they’ve come up with nothing on that. This suggestion that reception, Year 1 and Year 6 go back in 700 schools in the country, the infant schools, that’s the big majority of children in those schools. 

‘How can you possibly do social distancing when the majority of children in classes of 30 or more are back in the school, it makes no sense.’

Mr Courtney added that testing should be available for both students and teachers, alongside plans for what schools should do if a pupil or faculty member falls ill with coronavirus.  

The PM (pictured on Sunday night) said pupils in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 will be the first to go back from the start of the month during the staged process

 Nurseries would also be covered in the initial phase and the hope is that all primary school children would return to classrooms by the summer

‘We’ve said they need a plan for if there’s a case in the school, what do you then do?’ he added. ‘Do you close the whole class down? Do you close the whole school down?

‘We’ve been given no science on that. How can we be planning now when they haven’t given us any of those things.’

The NEU general secretary added the union had surveyed their members following the PM’s address last night, and within an hour 49,000 teachers had responded with the ‘vast, vast majority of them saying they think it is unsafe’ to return to schools in June.     

‘It’s reckless, it’s irresponsible. Mary [Bousted] and I wrote to the government on May 1 asking them to talk with us before making any announcement, to get the science out there where people can see it, peer reviewed, about whether this would be safe or not,’ he said.

‘They’ve just ignored that. They’ve ignored three letters that we’ve sent them about the science. We’ve published a report about those questions recently. They made this announcement last night with no consultation with heads or with teachers before making the announcement, it’s caused great consternation.’   

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: ‘We think that the announcement by the Government that schools may reopen from June 1 with reception and years one and six is nothing short of reckless’

 Secondary school students who have exams next year will likely be given time with teachers before the summer holidays but most will not be back until September

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, last night slammed Mr Johnson’s proposal as ‘nothing short of reckless.’

She said: ‘In China, children stand outside the school gates and are sprayed front and back with disinfectant, their shoes are sprayed, they wash their hands with sanitiser, they must take off their mask and replace it with a new one, and their temperature is taken remotely.’

She told The Times similar measures should be introduced in Britain, adding: ‘They’re doing that in South Korea and they have a minuscule number of new cases.’

Mr Johnson’s plans would see children in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 return to schools from June 1 as part of a staged process.  

Secondary school students who have exams next year will likely be given time with teachers before the summer holidays but most will not be back until September.   

‘If we can’t do it by those dates, and if the alert level won’t allow it, we will simply wait and go on until we have got it right,’ Mr Johnson said. ‘If there are problems we will not hesitate to put on the brakes.’  

The PM gave five phases of a ‘Covid alert level’ that will be primarily influenced by the rate of transmission, or R, which he said is between 0.5 and 0.9

The plans sparked alarm across Britain, with more than 300,000 parents signing a petition to allow them to keep their children at home if schools begin to reopen next month.

The petition, launched on Change.org within minutes of Mr Johnson’s announcement, was created by Lucy Browne, who told other parents she fears for her daughter’s safety.   

‘I’m calling on the UK Government to give parents and guardians the option of not sending their children back to school if they reopen in June, as Boris Johnson has suggested could happen in England,’ she said.

When will students return to school in PM’s proposal? 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson last night outlined when children could expect to return to school in Britain.

Primary school students in Year 1, Year 6 and reception could see a return to classrooms on June 1 ‘at the earliest.’ 

Nurseries would also be covered in the initial phase and the hope is that all primary school children would return to classrooms by the summer.

Secondary school students who have exams next year will likely be given time with teachers before the summer holidays but most will not be back until September. 

‘As a mum I don’t want to face serious repercussions for making a choice I feel affects the safety of my daughter during a global pandemic’.

She added: ‘The UK now has the highest death toll in Europe and second highest in the world.

‘Many of us have lost confidence in the Government’s handling of this crisis and feel it is too early to return children to schools.

‘It seems it could post risks not only to children but also teachers and those they live with – grandparents, parents and those (with) underlying health conditions’. 

Ms Browne claimed ministers had provided little reassurance about measures that might be taken to protect people and manage the risks of a return to school.

‘Even drop-off and collection could increase risk of transmission among parents. We need the Government to be transparent with us and put things in place before we can consider placing our trust in this decision.

‘Parents should have a choice on whether or not they put their children in this scenario’.

One signatory to the petition said she would ‘rather lose my job and my house than my child’.

Another wrote: ‘Open up Parliament first. Our children are not testing tools for anyone!’   

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Calais Racing Union: The amateur team that went to Coupe de France final

The French word epopee is a tricky one to translate directly into English, but it essentially means epic or saga, as in the poetic narrative of people performing extraordinary deeds to overcome insurmountable odds.

In French football, it is a word synonymous with one club: Calais Racing Union.

To fully understand why, we must go back 20 years to the 1999-2000 season and one of the single greatest cup runs in sport.

Football history is replete with Cinderella stories but a special romance is reserved for the fairytale cup adventure of a lower-league side.

In England we have the FA Cup exploits of the likes of Chesterfield, Wycombe and Lincoln City. In Spain, Castilla’s run to meet parent club Real Madrid in the 1980 final is enshrined in Copa del Rey folklore. While in Italy, there are the respective achievements of then third-tier sides Bari and Alessandria in reaching the Coppa Italia semi-finals.

In France, though, they have a story to top them all – that of the amateur fourth-tier team comprised of shopkeepers, teachers and labourers whose remarkable and unprecedented journey to the French Cup final and a showdown with holders and then seven-time national champions Nantes gripped the whole nation.

As in most epic tales, though, the journey matters more than the goal.

An escape from reality

When Calais began their 1999-2000 cup campaign, with a tie against Campagne les Hesdin, glory in the Stade de France was the furthest thing from the minds of their players and fans.

On the pitch, 11 games and all of the country’s professional sides stood between them and an unthinkable final. Off it, there were even more pressing issues at hand.

The northern port town of Calais was then, and remains now, one of the most economically challenged in France. At the turn of the century, unemployment was at nearly 17%, with almost half of its 75,000 inhabitants earning less than £5,000 a year.

As an amateur organisation, Calais Racing Union and its players were not immune to the economic hardship. The year before, the club had lost in the region of £200,000.

Most of those who turned out regularly for the side received no money in return, instead relying entirely on mainly low-paid jobs for their livelihood.

Defender Jocelyn Merlen and winger Mickael Gerard sold alcohol to English day-trippers in a local cash and carry, midfielder Gregory Lefebvre was a camp attendant, Stephane Canu a gardener and star player Emmanuel Vasseur an electrician on trains in the Channel Tunnel.

Their manager, Ladislas Lozano, who had fled Spain with his family as a child to escape the Franco regime, was a council foreman responsible for tending to the area’s sporting facilities.

But every successive cup win that season brought football and its emotional and financial rewards to the foreground and enabled players and fans alike to briefly forget about day-to-day hardships.


Four fellow amateur sides and one semi-professional outfit (Dunkerque) were dispatched en route to the round of 32 and a clash with their first fully professional opponent, Lille, then a Ligue 2 side.

The gulf in ability between divisions is much smaller in France than it is in England. There is also a structural advantage for underdogs in the French Cup, which sees any side two tiers lower than their opponent automatically handed a home tie. Even so, few gave Calais a prayer.

But a 1-1 draw at their tiny Stade Julien-Denis was followed by a stunning 7-6 penalty shootout win.

And the victories kept on coming. After seeing off fifth-tier Langnon-Castets 3-0, they beat another Ligue 2 side, Cannes, again on penalties – which brought each of their players a huge £2,000 bonus and firmly into the public limelight.

If that win caused waves, the next, against Ligue 1 Strasbourg, prompted a tsunami of public recognition. Technically a home draw, the tie was played in Lens because Calais’ 2,100-capacity stadium – usually home to 300 staunch fans on a weekend – was too small.

The now swollen travelling Calais support required 250 buses to take them the 65 miles to the game, won 2-1 thanks to goals from social worker Christophe Hogard and shopkeeper Merlen.

The day after, Lozano was given a standing ovation by fellow diners as he ate at the historic restaurant Fouquet’s, on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

Lozano and his team weren’t done yet, though. The semi-finals brought them up against Bordeaux, the reigning French champions, a side full of internationals – Christophe Dugarry, Lilian Laslandes, Johan Micoud and Sylvain Legwinski to name a few.

Again played in Lens, with 40,000 of their fans travelling to support them both inside and outside the stadium, Calais won 3-1 in extra time.

The town went wild, the players received £10,000 each for their efforts and Lozano suffered a minor heart attack in the aftermath, resulting in three days in hospital, during which he received a get-well phone call from president Jacques Chirac.

In the build-up to the final “Calais-mania” gripped France – its TV channels, newspapers, bars and cafes were awash with talk of the “sang et ors” (Blood and Golds). “All of France behind Calais!” declared Le Parisien.

Unfortunately, not all of Calais could secure access to their side’s greatest moment. Far from it. The club received 50,000 applications for tickets for the final, but were allocated just 19,300 of the Stade de France’s 80,000 seats.

Many went to Paris anyway, just to be near to the event and soak up its magic.

For 49 glorious minutes on 7 May 2000, the fairytale story appeared as though it was going to get its perfect ending, thanks to Jerome Dutitre’s 34th-minute opening goal.

However, reality came crashing back in, in the shape of two Nantes goals – both scored by future Manchester City, Newcastle and Wigan midfielder Antoine Sibierski, the second a cruel 90th-minute game-winning penalty.

‘Calais is forging characters’

Losers within the 90 minutes, Calais were victors in a much broader sense.

At the Stade de France, Nantes captain Mikael Landreau invited his Calais counterpart Reginald Becque to lift the Coupe de France trophy alongside him. Later, the French president again sought out Lozano.

“Mr Chirac told us that there is a sport winner and a moral winner. He told us that Calais was the real winner,” the coach revealed afterwards.

Nantes would win the French title the following season but 2000 would remain Calais’ high point. They would embark on another cup run in 2006, reaching the quarter-finals, but then fell into prolonged financial problems that eventually led to the club’s liquidation in 2017.

They live on, though, in French football folklore, as a symbol of defying the odds.

Their cup run was voted as the best of all time by France Football magazine readers in 2017, while this year a replay of the 2000 final, featuring players who featured from both clubs, was planned until the coronavirus pandemic intervened.

Many other clubs have followed in Calais’ footsteps, establishing the Coupe de France as one of the most unpredictable and entertaining domestic cup competitions in Europe, while others, including the FA Cup in England, continue to have their lustre questioned.

Third-tier Amiens (2001) made it to the Coupe de France final the year after Calais, while Dijon (2004), Nimes (2005) and Gazelec Ajaccio (2011) have all reached the last four since the turn of the century. Les Herbiers and Chambly, also third-tier sides, played each other in the semis in 2018, with the former going on to lose to Paris St-Germain in the final.

To top that, fourth-tier amateurs Quevilly reached the same stage in 2010 and then went one better in 2012, making it to the final, where they were beaten by Lyon.

More importantly, the club remains an aspirational example for their troubled city.

As Lozano said in an interview with French football news site sofoot.com this year, following his appointment to Calais’ municipal council: “The six years spent at the club affected me, but also the mentality of the locals, their way of fighting, going beyond their limits, rejecting adversity. Calais is forging characters.”

Even 20 years on, the legacy of the club’s now legendary achievement lives on in the city, both in memories and mortar.

This year, an exhibition of the letters and faxes sent to Lozano by fans during the cup run was inundated with visitors.

The city’s football stadium, built in 2008, home to Racing Union for its final nine years and now the residence of spiritual successor Grand Calais Pascal FC bears a grand but fitting title: the Stade de l’Epopee.

Additional reporting by Ian Holyman.

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Principals’ union head calls for year 12 exams to be scrapped this year

The head of the school principals' union has called for VCE exams to be scrapped this year, arguing the disruption to study is placing an unreasonable mental burden on 2020's year 12 students.

There are calls to scrap VCE exams this year, rather than extend year 12 into January. Credit:Julia Baird

Julie Podbury, president of the Australian Principals Federation, said VCE students could still receive a ranking for university entry based on teachers' assessments of their assignments.

The Andrews government is yet to announce if students will return to face-to-face classes in term two, which begins on April 15. But it is widely expected that most students will be taught remotely in term two and potentially into term three.

Premier Daniel Andrews also said on Sunday that it was possible that end-of-year VCE exams would be pushed back six to eight weeks, potentially into early 2021, so that year 12 students could get an ATAR score.

But Ms Podbury said an ATAR could be derived just as effectively and with less stress for students by cancelling end-of-year exams.

“We talk about taking the panic factor out, which is there in every VCE year; it’s horrendous to watch as a principal,” she said.

“This might be an opportunity to do things differently. We don’t need the end-of-year exams.”

Ms Podbury said students could be given a credible ATAR by combining their assignment results with results from the GAT, or General Achievement Test, a general literacy and numeracy test that is sat by all VCE students.

Victoria’s Education Minister James Merlino has already flagged delaying the GAT, which is generally sat in June.

“If we get to a place where we can actually set the kids down for an exam, let that be the GAT,” Ms Podbury said.

Professor John Hattie, Director of the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, also rejected the notion of extending the school year for senior students.

Professor Hattie noted that the Australian school year is already the longest in the world.

“We still don’t perform as well as Estonia, Sweden and Finland, who have even fewer days, even if we took 10 weeks out,” he said.

“At this stage I think we should be saying to our year 12 students, take this as an opportunity to do some deep work in some areas, but let’s not panic about what will happen at the end of the year.”

Professor Hattie also previously advised New Zealand's school education authority on what to do in the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. He said he argued very strongly to leave the timeline for the school year untouched.

“That was the best year students ever had with their performance and the year after, they went backwards,” he said.

“The reason for that is teachers started to be concerned about what the students need to know and what they needed to learn, as opposed to, ‘Come to my class and I’ll tell you what you need to know’.”

Federal and state education ministers will meet on Tuesday to look at what can be done to minimise the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on students' studies, especially year 12s heading into tertiary education and work.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said on Monday the ministers wanted to do everything possible to ensure students could continue their education, with co-operation from curriculum and assessment authorities in each state and with individual universities.

He said deliberations were well advanced on what could be done, including universities putting in place flexible admissions for school leavers.

"They’d be happy to look at a mix of what’s happened during the student’s assessments in year 11, and then look at what’s happened in year 12, and look at a mixture then of both," Mr Tehan told radio station 3AW.

Mr Merlino on Monday said: "We are working on a range of options to ensure VCE and VCAL students can complete their studies."

With Fergus Hunter

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