Chaotic start to the new school term - which lasted just a day

A day can be a long time in politics, as primary headteachers across Lancashire discovered yesterday.

Wednesday, 6th January 2021, 10:09 am
Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation last night.

Most answered Boris Johnson’s passionate Sunday morning call to re-open their schools as normal after the Christmas break.

But within 24 hours they were closing the gates again after the Prime Minister had a sudden change of heart.

The about-turn came at the end of a chaotic day when the vast majority of teachers and support staff had turned in for work to make sure the spring term started on schedule.

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Lea Community Primary School in Preston, one of more than 20 which stayed shut yesterday.

Only around 20 schools in the county remained closed with staff following union advice to stay at home amid fears classrooms would be unsafe.

But most others showed up as normal, in line also with recommendations from bosses at County Hall, allowing more than 450 primaries to open for lessons, albeit with stricter precautions in place.

Initially, Preston and Lancaster districts had the most unavoidable closures yesterday - seven each - with South Ribble and Wyre having two apiece. There were none reported in Chorley.

One of those in Preston, Acorns Primary School on Blackpool Road, was closed because of technical problems – no power, water or heating.

The rest - Catforth, Lea Community, Moor Nook, The Blessed Sacrament, Fishwick and Lea St Mary’s – were unable to open, either because of a high number of teacher absences, or because staff felt it was unsafe to bring the children back to school.

All-in-all it was a frustrating time for heads who had followed the Prime Minister's call to open up, made on a Sunday morning TV appearance - a decision which lasted just a day.

Many contacted by the Post yesterday said it was lessons as usual, with the vast number of teachers and pupils having turned in for the first day of the Spring Term.

From today only vulnerable children, or those with parents who are key workers, will be allowed in school.

Boris Johnson's proclamation that primary schools were safe for children to return was backed up by Lancashire's Director of Public Health Dr Sakthi Karunanithi and also the county council's cabinet member for schools Coun Phillippa Williamson.

They issued a joint statement after the PM's TV appearance on Sunday advising parents to send their children in as normal after the Christmas holidays.

But Dr Sakthi qualified his advice by saying: "Clearly this is a fast-moving situation and must be kept under constant review, both locally and by government."

The Downing Street U-turn was welcomed by the National Education Union (NEU) who had advised teachers not to go into work yesterday because classrooms were seen as unsafe due to an alarming rise in infections of the new Covid variant across the country.

The union urged teachers over the weekend to invoke employment law and refuse to go in, saying: “This is a step we take with huge reluctance. But this Government is failing to protect children, their families and our communities.

“And it is failing in its duty of care to education staff who have worked tirelessly to look after children during this pandemic. If Government does not act to follow the science, we must.”

After the Prime Minister's lockdown announcement, the union accused the government of failing to react more swiftly to "mounting evidence" about Covid transmission in schools and to make preparations for remote teaching and alternatives to written exams.

Mary Bousted, co-leader of the NEU, said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had "become an expert in putting his head in the sand".

Geoff Barton of the headteachers' union ASCL criticised ministers for having issued legal threats to keep schools open at the end of last term - and then "made a series of chaotic announcements about the start of this term".

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