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Executive Leader Cllr Brenda Warrington

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Councillor Brenda Warrington, Executive Leader of Tameside Council

Tameside's Schools Deserve Better

Friday, 18 September 2020

Over five months after they closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, schools in Tameside have once again reopened their doors.

The decision to close schools to all except those considered particularly vulnerable and the children of key workers was not one that was made lightly. I think I speak for many when I say that there is a certain amount of relief that we are now in a position to teach our children again. Ofsted and education charities have warned that children from disadvantaged backgrounds risked being left behind while learning and it is a warning that we should take seriously. We cannot assume, as the government seemed to do, that all children had access to the internet, a computer or laptop of their own and a peaceful environment in which to study. Research by the Education Policy Institute found that disadvantaged teenagers were 18.1 months behind their fellow pupils by the time they finished their GCSEs even before the pandemic hit, and it is likely that that number would be even higher now taking into account the impact of school closures. Like all other parts of the public sector, schools have suffered heavily from a decade of austerity. If we intend to make up this attainment gap, it is absolutely essential that our schools be given the funding, resources and support to do so.

While I welcome the reopening of our schools, I am far from happy at the way that the entire process has been handled. While it was the right decision to close them, the guidance and information provided by the government to make it happen was not even close to fit for purpose. Unfortunately this chaos and confusion became a theme as the pandemic continued. The fiasco with exam results last month, where the expertise of education professionals was ignored in favour of a computer algorithm that penalised children through no fault of their own, was just the most glaring example of the disconnect between government policy and what teachers and pupils across the country knew was actually happening. Far too often the government also seemed to be prioritising reopening schools to free up parents to return to work, as opposed to putting the safety of children and teachers first. It should come as no surprise that a national survey taken at the end of the summer term showed that 79% of teachers thought that the government had handled “communication with schools” “badly” or “very badly”, and 80% responded with the same two answers when asked how practical the government’s advice was. 

Furthermore, while I have no doubt that teachers and other staff will do everything they can to keep their schools coronavirus-secure many of the measures needed to protect children, such as testing, take place outside the school gates. Only about 7% of school leaders are confident with the arrangements around testing, tracking and tracing coronavirus infections and carriers. I’ve talked in this blog previously that the current testing and tracing infrastructure is both overcentralized in that it does not utilise the knowledge of local health experts on the ground, and inefficient in that the private companies contracted to perform the service have consistently failed to hit their targets for contact tracing. Unfortunately since then the situation was only gotten worse. We’ve heard news of test facilities failing catastrophically to meet demand and stories of people being sent to test centres on the other side of the country, if they can even a book a test online or via telephone at all. There is no way to defeat the coronavirus pandemic that does not begin with a robust and effective testing regime, and the current lack of such is a severe failing that we are lobbying the government to address at every opportunity.

The risk of a second wave of the pandemic is still with us, especially as the days get colder and the nights get longer. Even in the short time that our schools have returned, in spite of the measures that schools have put in place, we have had cases where whole classes of children have been forced to self-isolate due to a fellow pupil testing positive for coronavirus. We cannot let schools, especially larger secondary schools, become new hubs for infection

Across the country teachers and other school staff have done incredible work in managing the transition to make our schools as safe as they can possibly be. They deserve better than having their efforts belittled and undermined by a chaotic and confused government. So as we welcome children returning to education at last, let’s remember that the fight against the coronavirus pandemic remains far from over.

Posted by: Executive Leader

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