Norfolk head says decision to close schools came 'far too late'

Matthew Try, headteacher of Hillcrest Primary School. Picture: Ian Burt

Matthew Try, headteacher of Hillcrest Primary School. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

A Norfolk headteacher has said although the government decision to close schools has been welcomed, the late decision forced staff and parents to make difficult choices ahead of the announcement.

Matthew Try, head at Hillcrest Primary School in Downham Market, said the decision "came far too late in the day" to prevent thousands of people across the country contracting the virus "unnecessarily."

He added: "It certainly came too late to prevent many in the teaching profession agonising towards the end of the Christmas break as to the right thing to do in terms of reopening schools."

Hillcrest Primary School in Downham Market preparing for school closure. Picture: Ian Burt

Hillcrest Primary School in Downham Market preparing for school closure. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

The headteacher said the school, which has more than 500 pupils, had "towed the government's party line," despite many parents' fears of the virus and concerns over their children's safety, by insisting pupils return unless they were ill or isolating.

Messages were sent out to parents on Saturday saying the school had put in place additional safety measures and was ready to open on Monday.

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Mr Try said: "By Sunday, events had overshadowed those plans to return on what was probably the single most difficult day that I have experienced throughout this pandemic.

"It was also an incredibly testing day for my staff, many of who spent the Sunday contemplating the advice that the largest teaching union, the NEU, were giving its members along with the advice Unison were providing to support staff, and agonising over a decision that was not an easy one to make.

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"My staff desperately want to be in school and want nothing more than for the world to go back to normal, allowing them to educate the children in the way they deserve to be educated.

"However, each teacher has their own health to consider and each teacher has families that they go home to, some of whom have underlying health problems."

The head said some NEU members submitted section 44 letters to him about them feeling unsafe in the school building whilst the Covid variant was "so established locally" and that he understood and completely supports their decision.

Hillcrest Primary School in Downham Market. Picture: Ian Burt

Hillcrest Primary School in Downham Market. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

He added: "I should stress that this was not strike action. This was the staff exercising their right to ensure they are coming to a place of work in which they feel they are safe.

"Those same staff are busily working off site to ensure the children have the best remote learning experience they can give them and are completely committed to helping the children progress, even if it us under these difficult circumstances."

"In fact, the government announcement proves that the NEU, Unison and the National Association of Headteachers who backed the NEU's position, were actually ahead of the game and listening to the science whereas the government were once again left playing catch-up.

"The science told Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson back in November that schools should have closed."

Mr Try said numerous requests from the profession to extend the Christmas holidays were ignored, making reference to the governments threat of legal action against Greenwich Council over plans to close schools early before the Christmas break.

He added: "They then allowed other schools to go through the same angst that we experienced at Hillcrest over the past weekend, telling schools as late as Sunday morning on the Andrew Marr Show that it was safe to go to school, only then within 24 hours to be telling everyone something completely different. 

"Everyone involved in schools from the parents to the children and the staff have been treated incredibly poorly by the late decision-making and U-turning."

Despite this, Mr Try said there can now be some consistency offered, which will allow for planning, following yesterday's announcement.

He said: "We understand that the closure isn't ideal for the children and incredibly inconvenient for some parents.

"At least now, whether the current position is desirable or not, at least everyone knows what it is, for seven weeks at least."

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