‘This could seriously undermine impact of lockdown measures’: Concerns over demand for school places during England lockdown

The “sheer demand” for school places during England’s current lockdown has sparked concerns, with a leading education union saying it appeared much higher than last spring.

Fears about the risks of transmission of Covid-19 have been raised amid reports some schools are still welcoming around half – or even more – of their students on site.

Alison Peacock, the chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, said she had written to the Department for Education (DfE) “concerned about the numbers of children attending school” as the third lockdown kicked off. 

Schools have been moved online for all children until at least mid-February, except for those classed as vulnerable and key workers’ children, as part of England’s new lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic.

Boris Johnson warned that schools may act as “vectors for transmission,” causing the virus to spread between households as he announced the changes for education resembling last spring’s lockdown.

Paul Whiteman from the school leaders’ union NAHT said: “We’re increasingly concerned about the sheer demand for key worker and vulnerable pupil places this week.”

“Our members are telling us that demand for places is much higher than it was during the first lockdown last spring. We’ve heard stories of some schools having 50-70 per cent in.”

The union’s general secretary added: “This could seriously undermine the impact of lockdown measures, and may even run the risk of extending school closures.”

The NAHT and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) are both calling on the government to provide guidance on the maximum safe number of children that there should be in school at once.

ASCL – which is also calling for clarity on how schools should prioritise places if they are over this limit – has warned that the demand for places in primary schools has created a “public health concern”.

“We are receiving reports of very high demand for places for the children of key workers in primary schools resulting in 50 per cent or more of children being on site in some schools,” Geoff Barton, the ASCL’s general secretary, said. 

But headteachers told The Independent it was not explicitly clear in original first lockdown guidance that children without devices could fall under the vulnerable category, and concerns have been raised over what this would mean in practice for school numbers.  

Kit Andrew, a primary headteacher in London, told The Independent this classification would “apply to over 50 per cent of my pupils”, on top of more than 25 per cent who are the children of key workers. 

Mr Barton from the ASCL said: “As remote education is rarely easy with young children, this has the potential to lead to huge demand.

“This is creating a public health concern as the point of restricted opening is to reduce the number of contacts in order to suppress the risk of coronavirus transmission.”

Mr Williamson said on Wednesday closing schools was “the last thing any education secretary wants”.

“The outlook for schools, parents and young people is far more positive than the one we faced last year,” the education secretary said. “Schools and colleges are much better prepared to deliver online learning – with the delivery of hundreds of thousands of devices at breakneck speed, data support and high quality video lessons available.” 

The DfE said last weekend it had delivered 560,000 laptops and devices to schools, with another 100,000 arriving this week, and was on track to reach its target of one million delivered by the end of the academic year.

According to estimates from Ofcom, between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK do not have home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet.

Additional reporting by Press Association


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