The head of one of the UK’s biggest teaching unions has called for schools to remain closed until Covid-19 testing schemes have been set up properly.
Founder of Oasis, one of the largest multi-academy trusts in England, Steve Chalke, said that schools should remain closed for a week or two after the Christmas holidays to enable the effective rollout of coronavirus testing.
Mr Chalke told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We would ask Government to pause, to come up with a clear strategy for the continuity of education.
“We think that means a short delay to think things through.
“We would suggest a week or two’s delay to think it through, to do it well – and we think that if you really care about kids you would do this well – to invest now, to give time now makes sense.”
However, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), Geoff Barton, said he welcomed the Government’s plans for soldiers to offer remote support for testing, but warned it was unlikely to be enough.
Responding to a question about why unions were saying schools should remain closed, Mr Barton, said: “Eminent scientists have said that schools should remain closed; that’s what unions I think have been responding to.
“None of this is to create problems because we know those tests are going to help more young people to keep from being disrupted – it’s a really good idea.
“We’re educationists, we can support the Government and it is good we are going to have some members of the Army.
“But for 3,500 secondary schools, 1,500 troops doing webinars probably isn’t the Government response that we were looking for.
“So I do think we need to be absolutely clear and say to the ministers and the Prime Minister ‘if scientists are saying they think it’s not safe, how do you, the PM or minister, know better?’
“What’s the evidence, the rationale for business as usual?”
Mr Barton said the ASCL union supported the phased opening of schools with a testing system already in place, set up with the support of health services and the military, so teachers could implement the last minute changes (which were only announced on December 23), in a planned and controlled way.
He added: “Those people that are calling for a delay to young people coming back to school are doing it on the principle that we should get this testing right and we should listen to what the scientists are saying.
“If a Government minister says ‘whatever the scientists say, we think young people should be in school’ then we have every right to say ‘can you tell us why you know better than the scientists please?’”
However, Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon called for schools to reopen, and speaking to Good Morning Britain on Tuesday, the MP said “I hope very much schools will be open, I would like to see teachers and support staff made a priority for vaccinations.
“We’ve got to make sure that the rapid testing regime announced just before Christmas for schools is rolled out properly, and of course if the armed forces are going to be involved, I would welcome their support as well.”