Teaching unions have welcomed the decision to close schools, but have called on the government to make sure there is adequate provision for children on free school meals.
The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson today announced that schools would be shut “until further notice” in a bid to suppress the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Schools, colleges and nurseries will close from this coming Friday (20 March 2020), with GCSE and A Level exams now cancelled.
Announcing the school closures, Gavin Williamson said:
The spike of the virus is happening at a faster pace than anticipated, and it is right to consider the right measures to arrest this increase and to relieve this pressure on the health system.
I want to provide parents, students and staff with the certainty they need … After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon they will remain closed until further notice. This will be for all children except to those of key workers and children who are most vulnerable.
Following Mr Williamson’s announcement, which had been widely expected due to the increasing spread of the virus, teaching unions had questions regarding the proposed measures for vulnerable children, while groups representing the nursery sector said urgent assistance was required to help keep businesses afloat.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, which represents headteachers, said the announcement left “more questions than answers”, and that schools would be seeking details, while Purnima Tanuku, head of the National Day Nurseries Association, called it “absolutely devastating news”, saying the sector needed help to cope with continued overheads.
After calling for schools to close earlier this week, the National Education Union (NEU) said they supported the measure – although they have concerns regarding vulnerable children.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:
We welcome the Government’s announcement that, for public health reasons, schools will now close. It is better for this to take place in an ordered way than the chaotic pattern of closures that was developing.
We also welcome the clarity that SATs, GCSE, AS- and A-Level exams are to be cancelled.
This offers some degree of reassurance to teachers, their students and parents.
We note that, at this time of emergency, the Government has decided that teacher assessment is indeed a good method of giving reliable information about young people’s progress and achievements. We will return to that when this crisis is over.
Now, more than anything else the Government needs to concentrate on ensuring that children in food poverty are fed properly – these children are not just those on free school meals.
The Association of School and College Leaders echoed the NEU’s sentiments, saying they supported the closure of schools, while focusing on the issue of children who currently take free school meals.
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:
We support the decision to close schools and colleges in England, and the corresponding decisions which have taken place in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland today. It is the right action at the right time.
We also welcome the Education Secretary’s statement that assessment and exams will be cancelled this year and performance tables suspended. The cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams will inevitably cause anxiety to students and we will work closely with Ofqual on ensuring that qualifications are awarded fairly and consistently in lieu of exams.
The priority is now to focus on maintaining provision for vulnerable children and those of key workers. We know that many schools have already drawn up plans to do exactly that and are well ahead of the curve.
However, this is an exceptionally demanding situation and they will need support. We will be working closely with our members and the Department for Education to this end.
Meanwhile, the TUC have called on the government to make sure that working parents are paid parental leave to look after their children after the schools and nurseries close. As it stands, parents have no statutory rights to paid leave to look after their children, and the TUC are warning that if this is not addressed then families could quickly face financial hardship.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said:
As schools and nurseries close, lots of mums and dads will have no choice but to take time off work. They must be guaranteed paid parental leave.
We can’t allow the coronavirus outbreak to push families into poverty. No-one should be out of pocket for doing the right thing.