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Teachers and support staff have “risen to the challenge” during the coronavirus emergency in the way they have continued to keep schools open and provide high-quality learning and support to children, MPs have been told.

NASUWT General Secretary Dr Patrick Roach praised members for all the work they have been doing during the last three months but warned that “without a doubt” it was having an impact on teachers, including in terms of workload.

If schooling was to continue to be interrupted there needed to be “alternative approaches to delivering quality education” and the Government had to come up with a recovery plan for schools, Dr Roach added.

Giving evidence to MPs on the Education Select Committee Dr Roach said it was “vitally important to reopen schools as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so.”

He said it was important to plan for September and called for ministers to say how they would support vulnerable children and also spoke of the impacts of poverty and ethnicity as factors which affect children’s’ access to learning.

Dr Roach was asked about risks in schools and the level of risk that would be acceptable. He said: “We have got to look at this in the context of a public health crisis which led the government to close schools in the first place. Any decisions around the re-opening of schools have got to be set in that context.

“Of course you can’t have zero risk but you have to identify what the risks are, what the control factors are in respect of dealing with those risks.

“It’s not helpful that the government has not been clear in regards how schools should go about a process of identifying risk and mitigating those risks as part of a wider school re-opening plan.

“It’s not a question of either re-opening schools or not, it’s a question of how you can do so safely both for children and young people attending those schools and the staff working in them, but also in terms of the contribution to the wider public health concern.”

In the debate about international comparisons and countries which had opened schools more widely, Dr Roach, who has regular meetings with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, said it was vital to work closely with the profession.

He said: “We have to look at this in context and of course we can make some of those comparisons internationally, we can also make comparisons domestically too, in terms of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“Countries that have had the greatest success have been countries that have worked collaboratively with the profession as well as being driven by the scientific advice. Unfortunately that has not been in quite as much evidence here in England at least.”

The Conservative chairman of the Committee, Robert Halfon spoke about his fears that children who were not in school were “suffering enormously”.

Dr Roach replied: “The reality is that government has made the decision to close schools and the government needs to take responsibility for the decisions around reopening. It is absolutely right to recognise the delicate balance that needs to be struck between those public health concerns and the health and safety concerns, but also children’s’ right to education.

“We absolutely support the arguments for children’s’ right to education. The best place for children is going to be in schools and it is vitally important that we can reopen schools as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so.”

Looking ahead to September he added: “It is important that we plan and prepare for September, whatever September looks like. Schools should open as quickly as possible, we have been very clear about that. Schools are already open to a greater or lesser degree.

“Teachers have from the outset of this crisis, risen to the challenge of supporting learning. We support and commend our members who have been doing that.

“That includes teachers and support staff who have supported vulnerable children and children of key workers within schools. But also all the teachers who are supporting children and young people who are unable to be in school.

“That has had an impact, without a doubt it has had an impact because we have seen workload, according to our surveys, the workloads of teachers are increasing. The question is how sustainable that can be in the longer run and it absolutely right to look at alternative approaches if indeed schooling is to continue to be interrupted, to look at alternative approaches to delivering quality education – but there is no doubt teachers are doing the job.”

The NASUWT faced attacks from Conservative MPs on the Committee, particularly Jonathan Gullis, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North who claimed education unions were running a campaign to make parents fearful of sending their children to school, which he said looked to parents like schools were “deathtraps”.

Dr Roach dismissed the claim, telling MPs: “I would seriously challenge members of the committee to ensure their views are rooted in the evidence of what unions are actually saying.

“The NASUWT has not been engaged in any campaign to keep schools closed.

“What we have been engaged in is work with the Government, with local authorities, employers whether that is multi academy trusts or whatever, to ensure the safe return of children to learning as quickly as is possible.

“We are certainly not about blocking reopening. My communications with the Education Secretary have been very clear about how you can create the conditions for the safe return of children to school. Arbitrary dates don’t help. We need a clear process, a clear plan which parents and teachers working in schools and the wider community can get behind.”

Dr Roach, who has been calling for more to be done to address the digital divide since the start of the crisis, addressed the issue of online learning and vulnerable children.

He said: “We have been very clear from the get go with the government that we needed to have a plan in relation to providing an infrastructure to ensure that no child was left behind, that every child could access the learning offer from schools.

“There is a need for a recovery plan in our education system which does recognise actually there are huge challenges for many schools in the state sector in supporting children’s learning, particularly those children who are from vulnerable backgrounds or disadvantaged backgrounds.

“It is vitally important that government actually sets out what its plans are and how it intends to support schools to support those children.”

Asked about risks to BAME teachers and the issues surrounding access to learning among BAME pupils he said: “We have a considerable amount of evidence of disparities in relation to the treatment of BME teachers and other staff, but the impact this is having in respect of concerns among the profession and parents and communities about the race equality impact around both school closure and reopening plans.

“While we will continue to urge schools to be clear about the equality impact of their reopening plans we are concerned the government hasn’t really come clean in relation to the equality impact of its announcement in relation to schools reopening.

“The Government needs to be transparent…it needs to give the sector greater confidence as it begins to prepare for wider reopening, not just this term but from September onwards. Schools are very concerned not to be doing the wrong thing which could be catastrophic in relation to the lives of BAME staff in schools but also children and the communities from which they come from.

“On BAME guidance, the Government hasn’t published guidance for schools. On the issue of Equality Impact Assessments, those are absolutely essential and the government has got to come clean on that.

“On child poverty government has to recognise the impact of poverty and indeed ethnicity as two factors working together impacting on children’s’ access to learning and indeed their progress and life chances.

“It is regrettable that government hasn’t come forward with a plan to address those issues head on, to ensure that for example Bangladeshi children have access to learning opportunities and are supported in that whilst schools remain closed. It is vitally important that we see that positive action led by government.

“Those disparities are linked to racism and racial inequality, there is no doubt about that, both within schools and within the system as a whole which is impacting on children’s lives. One of the things we are saying very clearly is that Black Lives Matter in education and we need a very clear plan, a clear recovery plan which is going to support those children and ensure they don’t get left behind during this crisis.”

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