The Department for Education said medical advice had highlighted the risks of children not being in education © Oli Scarff/AFP

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The UK government on Monday rebuffed calls from teaching unions to shut schools in England during the coming Covid-19 national lockdown, despite data showing sharply rising infections among secondary school-age pupils.

Downing Street said keeping schools open in England remained of utmost importance, but unions and educationalists warned that a rota system within schools could be the only way to slow infection rates and keep institutions open.

“The PM’s priority remains keeping people in education and it is still the firm advice that school is the best place for children to be,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said.

Number 10 was responding to pressure to include schools in the one-month lockdown that starts on Thursday, with a parliamentary petition demanding shutdowns garnering more than 300,000 signatures in 48 hours. 

The calls were led by the National Education Union (NEU), which cited Office for National Statistics data that showed about 2 per cent of secondary school children were infected with Covid-19, and that infections had increased by 50 times since schools opened in September.

“Something needs to be done to break the exponential growth in infections, or within six weeks the current 2 per cent infection rate could be 16 per cent, and children’s education will anyway be disrupted, just in an unplanned way,” said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU.

The NEU’s call for intervention was backed by the NASUWT, the teachers’ union, which warned that the government had “recklessly” given up on maintaining social distancing in schools, and argued for steps to ensure smaller class sizes.

Mayors in northern England, where infections are highest, have backed the unions’ call for action, saying that if schools remained open there was little chance of reducing the spread of infection sufficiently.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, has suggested a two-week closure of schools in the second half of November so teachers can gear up for online learning. However, schools have warned of laptop shortages after the government recently cut allocations of laptops by up to 80 per cent to some schools, citing global market shortages.

Both headteachers’ unions, the NAHT and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) stopped short of supporting calls to include schools in the lockdown but said the government needed to clarify “additional measures” to keep staff and pupils safe.

“A first step, if it is needed, could be to introduce a rota system in secondary schools with pupils rotating between remote education and attendance in school,” said Julie McCulloch, director of policy at ASCL.

Steve Chalke, head of the Oasis chain of academies that educates 32,000 pupils across 53 schools in England, said that only a rota system could meet the social distancing component of the government’s “hands, face, space” campaign.

He added that Oasis wanted to remain open despite the death of a staff member from Covid-19 last week. “But what we need is a national continuity plan, based on a rota system and it needs to be in place for the whole year, not just for next month.”

Preliminary results from a survey by Teacher Tapp, the online teacher forum, found on Monday that 43 per cent of teachers backed a rota system to enable smaller classes. The survey reflected a clear desire among teachers not to go back to remote teaching if possible, according to Laura McInerney, co-founder of TeacherTapp. 

A Department for Education spokesperson said medical advice had highlighted the risks of children not being in education. “We are prioritising children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing, by keeping nurseries, schools, colleges and universities open.”

Conservative backbench MPs have broadly supported the government’s approach. Former children’s minister Tim Loughton said: “We absolutely need to keep schools open, closing them is the last thing we should do.”

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