Labour blames education secretary for ‘chaotic decision-making’ over Covid testing plan
Schools will be allowed to stagger the starting date of the new academic year to allow for on-site Covid testing to take place, the Department for Education (DfE) has said.
Labour said it showed a “staggering disregard” for families, claiming that delays in the restarting of lessons would mean more disruption for pupils and parents in September.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green MP has written to Mr Williamson urging him to immediately clarify his “last-minute” decision-making – just 10 days before the start of term.
“The Conservatives chaotic, last-minute approach is damaging children’s education. Parents would rightly expect ministers to have learnt from their mistakes over the last year, but once again families are being treated as an afterthought,” said Ms Green.
The Labour frontbencher added: “After two years of disrupted education each day in school matters. The Conservatives’ systematic refusal to plan ahead is just not good enough. Labour is demanding better for our children’s futures.”
Lessons in many secondary schools are not expected to start until the second week of the new academic year, after the DfE said headteachers will be allowed to stagger the starting date for teaching so pupils can be tested twice for Covid.
A DfE spokesman said: “[School] settings may commence testing three working days before the start of term, and can stagger the return of pupils across the first week.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) union, said there was a need to test pupils on site after the summer break – but said families would be “frustrated” at further disruption in September.
“Logistically it will be challenging. We thought we could focus on the norm of education and already we have the spectre of disruption. Parents may rightly feel frustrated,” said Mr Barton.
Steve Chalke, chief executive of Oasis, one of England’s biggest academy trusts, complained about the “last-minute” decisions. “Head teachers have called for months for a way of opening schools and keeping them open to avoid a third year of academic disruption to children,” he said.
In her letter to Mr Williamson, the shadow education secretary wrote: “Once again, your delayed planning and chaotic decision-making risks creating havoc for families and will put additional pressure on school staff planning for the start of the new year.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said expanding the vaccine programme to 12 to 17-year-olds would help reduce the number of pupils off school in self-isolation.
No 10 said it was hoping for a decision from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) “as soon as possible” on whether 12 to 15-year-olds should receive the vaccine.
“We want a decision to be reached as soon as possible, recognising they’re an independent body, so it wouldn’t be right for us to set a specific timeline for them,” said Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson on Monday. “We want it to be done as soon as possible so that parents and young people have certainty.”
Downing Street also indicated that talks were under way with education leaders on the use of school facilities –like assembly halls and gyms – for mass vaccination of pupils, if JCVI decide the jab can be rolled out to the over-12s.
“We will obviously discuss with schools, as we have been, about what that might necessitate in order to get it done as quickly as possible,” said the prime minister’s spokesperson.
Labour has also urged Mr Williamson to provide more certainty around ventilation in schools, and explain why the government has only just announced provision of carbon dioxide monitors for classrooms.
Around 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors will be made available to schools in England during the next term in a bid to improve ventilation and reduce Covid outbreaks, the DfE announced on Saturday.