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Delay to school closure ‘a disgrace’ says Cambridge headteacher

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A Cambridge primary school headteacher has branded the government’s last-minute announcement of a new lockdown one day after the start of term “a disgrace”.

Tony Davies, head of St Matthew’s Primary School, spoke out after Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed on Monday night that schools must close to most pupils – only hours after claiming it was safe to open them.

His anger at the lack of notice given to headteachers was echoed by National Education Union representative Niamh Sweeney, who teaches at Cambridge’s Long Road Sixth Form College.

Headteacher Tony Davies at an earlier protest asking for fairer funding for Cambridge schools.
Headteacher Tony Davies at an earlier protest asking for fairer funding for Cambridge schools.

She said the government had “jeopardised public health” with its actions by allowing some primary pupils to mix on their first day back at school before the lockdown was announced.

While there was wide acceptance of the need for tough action to curb spiralling Covid-19 case numbers – up 82.9 per cent in a week in Cambridge – there was also consternation among some business leaders over the support confirmed alongside it.

John Bridge, the chief executive of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, called it “inadequate” and complained at the “drip-feed” approach to announcing measures.

And he mocked Boris Johnson’s statement that “with a fair wind in our sails, we expect to have offered the first vaccine dose to everyone in the four top priority groups.”

Mr Bridge said: “Blowin’ in the Wind – is that the strategic thinking that our business community, as well as everybody else, would be expecting from the Prime Minister at this difficult and increasingly challenging time for many?”

John Bridge Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce (43875366)
John Bridge Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce (43875366)

The lockdown announced on Monday night comes as a variant of Covid-19 – thought to be 50 to 70 per cent more transmissible – spreads rapidly, leaving some hospitals at breaking point. The restrictions mean schools will stay closed until after February half-term to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers.

Mr Davies said: “It’s been an absolute disgrace. Starting with the kids, they have had no time at all to prepare for the fact they weren’t coming into school. They would have gone to bed on Monday night excited about coming back to school and got up on Tuesday morning to be told they are not. I just think that is totally unacceptable. When they are talking about the mental health impact of lockdowns, that is a brutal way for them to find out.

“From the parents’ point of view, we didn’t know what was going on. So I emailed them over the weekend to say I suggest you have some alternative childcare plans in place. This obviously affects a lot of people who can’t work from home and need to know what is happening.

“On Monday afternoon, I emailed again to confirm we would be reopening to all children after all. Then within half an hour of sending that out I started to hear rumours from various sources that we might be getting closed. So a few hours later I had to say I’m sorry, we are closing. So, all of their plans were out of the window.

“We were lucky to have a training day on Monday, but we had spent five days meeting with unions and staff, allaying their anxieties. And we met with the local authority and Public Health England, getting reassurances that it was safe to open.

“After a lot of soul searching and stress for staff who were concerned for their own safety and that of their families, some of whom are extremely vulnerable, and for the wellbeing of the pupils they are working with, we got stuck into the practicalities of being set up for the next day. We were told at 8pm that schools were going to be closed. It just felt terrible and I wondered at what point in the day the government had made that decision and could have let people know.

“Some schools actually had children back in on Monday!”

The school has home learning set up since last term for children who were self isolating. Classes will be meeting online over Google Classroom. But there was no opportunity to check the online learning systems yesterday or create class bubbles for key workers’ children.

“So much heartache could have been saved if they had made this decision in a timely manner,” said Mr Davies. “The government needs to start treating people with a bit of respect. It is unforgivable.”

Secondary schools and sixth form colleges had not been expected to reopen to most pupils until January 18. Summer exams have been cancelled, but schools were left without information yesterday (Tuesday) on whether vocational exams planned for this week were still going ahead.

Long Road Sixth Form teacher Niamh Sweeney
Long Road Sixth Form teacher Niamh Sweeney

Niamh Sweeney, a National Education Union representative who teaches at Long Road Sixth Form college, said: “We need to be consulted on assessment – vocational exams are due to start tomorrow. How can that be right?”

She added: “I am so, so cross. Nothing has changed since before the weekend. Nothing has changed since the SAGE meeting on December 23. Why did the PM allow all those children and families to mix in schools on Monday? Why did he leave it up to individual members of my trade union to highlight the lack of physical distancing in schools? Why has he not listened to the education profession, when we gave him a 10-point recovery plan for education in June?

“Why were headteachers and local authorities threatened with legal action for making the right decisions to protect the community. The government has jeopardised public health and I am so cross about it.”

Cambridgeshire, which was put into Tier 4 before Christmas, has seen large increases in the number of coronavirus cases.

Five people who had a positive Covid-19 test within 28 days have died in the county since New Year’s Day.

The county’s coronavirus death toll in December reached 48 – including five on Christmas Eve and four on Christmas Day.

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