Teaching union president relieved at government backtrack

by Sian Bayley, local democracy reporter

A school staff leader has expressed the relief of teachers after the government backtracked on its vow to force schools to reopen before the end of term.

The president of a Wandsworth teaching union has described the Government’s plans to drop the return of children in years 2-5 to primary school before summer as a “glimpse of common sense”.

Francesca Manning, President of the Wandsworth branch of the National Education Union (NEU), told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that Tuesday’s announcement was welcomed by the union.

“I think that it is a result of the campaigning that the NEU has done to pushback openings to a point where it is safer in schools, and to ensure that social distancing and safety measures are upheld in schools, so I think it’s been a win for safety really, which is the most important thing,” she said.

The union has been working closely with school leaders to ensure safety measures are put in place for the phased return of Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, with a particular focus on the two metre social distancing rule.

“The NEU is very clear that there does need to be that two metre distance in classrooms, that’s one of the things we’ve been working on with school leaders, making sure that is met and trying to make the case why that is in the best interest of the school community.

“In some schools that may mean they are not able to accommodate all of the year groups that the Government has specified, but we can only safely accommodate what we can safely accommodate, and safety has to come first,” she said.

She also expressed the union’s concern for vulnerable and BAME members who are at a disproportionate risk of the virus, and ensuring that those workers can have constructive conversations with their managers about working conditions.

“We’ve definitely had big successes in schools where we have been able to ensure that safety measures are in place, and I think we are really proud of that as a union because we know this could save lives,” she said.

She said the numbers of pupils returning in Wandsworth has been “patchy” with many parents still worried about bringing their children back.

Of the borough’s 64 primary schools and nursery settings, 53 at least partially opened on June 1.

Ms Manning said while there has been a rise in the number of keyworker children attending, she did express some concern about vulnerable children, who were not returning in the numbers expected.

To ensure children are treated as equally as possible, those in school are given the same home-learning tasks to do in the classroom as children who are still at home.

The union has welcomed support provided by the council, but Ms Manning says PPE supplies have also been “patchy” and the council’s offer to use its buildings and outdoor spaces has lacked guidance.

“It sounds like a very nice offer, but how are you supposed to get teachers there or children there, we haven’t as far as I’m aware, a list hasn’t been given of the different location of these buildings,” she said.

Last week the council’s cabinet member for education and children’s services, Will Sweet, visited Wandsworth schools as they began to reopen.

Cllr. Will Sweet

In a video posted on the council’s website, he said: “As a council we have done whatever it takes to unblock things, to make it possible for schools to open safely. We’ve done things like offer free use of council buildings for more classroom space.

“We are rolling out ‘school streets’ to reduce traffic for schools in Wandsworth, we are making it free to rent out parks and green spaces if schools need extra playground space. And over the weekend we delivered PPE to schools across Wandsworth, we’re making sure there’s enough sanitising gel, we’ve helped schools with their risk assessments, we are doing what it takes to make sure schools are safe in Wandsworth.”

Steph Neale

He said he hoped families would take time to look around their childrens’ schools and talk to headteachers, in the hope they would feel comfortable sending their children back.

Steph Neale, head teacher at Beatrix Potter School said he was “really pleased” to have the children back.

He added: “We’ve had a long conversation just reassuring them that things are different but we’ll try and do some extra things for them.

Denise York

Denise York, head teacher at Fircroft Primary School said: “We’ve been open throughout and with a rota of staff but we are looking forward to this next phase where more children are joining us. We should be able to accommodate all of the year groups which the government has prioritised. That’s taken quite a lot of reorganisation of our site in order to do so.”

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