Ex-Ofsted chief: failure to plan for reopening of schools is ‘astonishing’

The government’s failure to plan to get children back to school safely is “absolutely astonishing” and must be remedied before September, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of schools in England, has said.

Wilshaw, who led Ofsted from 2012 until 2016, said schools will need to put in place recovery programmes, appeal to teachers to run catch-up classes over the summer and even allow some of the most affected to repeat their school year.

The government has been criticised by MPs from all parties and unions for lacking a coherent plan, after announcing that primary schools in England would return in June before backtracking this week.

There is particular annoyance after ministers revealed that zoos, theme parks and outdoor cinemas would be able to open shortly – on the same day as confirming that not all primary schools could get back to operation before the end of the summer term.

Will there be a second wave of coronavirus?

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

Wilshaw said it was a sign the government had failed to consult schools about what was feasible in terms of educating children while sticking to physical distancing guidelines of keeping them in bubbles of 15.

“I find it absolutely astonishing that an announcement could be made by the PM that all primary schools would open in June without effective consultation with professional associations and particularly headteachers who would have said this is impossible under the social distancing arrangements you are insisting upon,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“It just smacks of poor organisation and No 10 saying something and the DfE [Department for Education] not being properly consulted. The government needs to get its act together … and make sure there is proper planning for September when both primary and secondary schools come back.”

He said it would be “absolutely critical” for schools to put in place recovery programmes to help youngsters catch up on at least a term of missed learning.

“I would be appealing to staff to come in over the summer holidays and take catch-up classes with those youngsters who need it,” he said, adding that schools should be looking at their budgets to see if they can afford to pay staff for extra teaching.

Nadhim Zahawi, a business minister, struggled to explain the government’s policy of reopening the economy but not schools, acknowledging that “tough decisions” had been taken.



Speaking on the same programme, he said 80% of schools remained open specifically to help vulnerable children and those of key workers but opening more widely had been dictated by the science that “says that in indoor spaces 15 children is the number you could educate safely”. 

“The whole focus has been making sure the most vulnerable children get to go to school,” said. “Of course these are tough decisions. Of course we want to get all the iPads and laptops out to all the children that need them … We are doing this as quickly as we can.”

Wilshaw also accused some of the government’s critics of initially saying it was moving too fast to open schools, before pivoting to criticise ministers for not going far enough.

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