Norfolk education bosses expect closures to be short term

Chris Snudden, director of learning and inclusion for Norfolk's children's services, part of Norfolk

Chris Snudden, director of learning and inclusion for children's services at Norfolk County Council., - Credit: Julian Claxton Photography

Education bosses in Norfolk say their expectation is that the majority of primary schools will soon reopen - unless there is a national announcement to close them.

More than 120 primary schools in the county did not reopen after the Christmas break today, amid staff shortages and concerns over the safety of children, teachers and families.

While the government had said secondary schools would have a phased reopening, prime minister Boris Johnson had said primary schools would reopen from today.

Norfolks MPs have praised Boris Johnsons dynamism and resolve as they shared messages of support fol

Prime minister Boris Johnson. - Credit: PA

But scores did not, with the National Education Union (NEU) advising members it would not be safe to return to classrooms today.

Norfolk County Council said decisions over reopening were up to head teachers and governing bodies, but have stressed the expectation in the longer term is for schools to be open - unless the government says otherwise.

Chris Snudden, director of learning and inclusion for children's services at Norfolk County Council, said further guidance would be given to schools later today - but that the expectation was that they would reopen.

She said: "Our mission is to get every school open. That is what we want because we think schools are the best place for children.

"We recognise that schools had an issue over the weekend, so it was about giving them a bit of space to establish the situation.

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"But I think some of those which were closed today will, unless there's a government announcement, be open again tomorrow."

She said it was important that school remained open to children of key workers and vulnerable children.

And she said: "I don't think this is going to be long term unless the national policy changes.

"The position we have seen has very much been linked to schools which have had a number of staff who are unwell or are needing to self isolate, along with the position of the unions.

"My view is that we are looking at a short-term issue, with a number of schools being closed while they get organised and members of the respective unions make their decisions.

"We had been meeting heads all over the weekend and we know many of them will be trying to reopen this week. They do not not want this to run into weeks.

"We are going to be doing everything we can to get them fully open, unless the national picture changes."

Some schools which did open today reported that attendance rates were below normal levels, suggesting some parents had decided not to send their children in.

Mrs Snudden said there would be no fines issued as a result, but that, in the longer term, parents had a legal responsibility to ensure their children attended.

She said: "We're not in fine territory here, that's not where we want to be. This isn't about punishing families, it's about supporting them.

"We just want to work with schools and families to see if there's anything we can do to get the children back into school.

"We know people are having to make really difficult decisions at the moment."

Labour county councillor Mike Smith-Clare said: "As a teacher I fully appreciate the role of schools in providing essential education to all children.

"This is why we enter the profession - and why we are striving to ensure our schools are safe.

"Yes we want schools open - but this can only happen with the support and confidence of parents and school staff. At present this doesn’t exist.”

The government has been coming under pressure to order a "pause" in a return to the classroom until the safety of staff and pupils can be guaranteed.

Mr Johnson has said there was "no question" about the need for tougher measures and will make an announcement tonight.

In a joint statement, the GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, Unison and Unite unions said there is a "serious risk" of staff falling ill while the rate of infection is so high.

"The government's chaotic handling of the opening of schools has caused confusion for teachers, school staff and parents alike," they said.

"Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing in Downing Street. Picture: Trevor Adams/Daily

Health secretary Matt Hancock. - Credit: PA

However, health secretary Matt Hancock has said teachers are at no greater risk of contracting the disease than the rest of the population.

"There is clear public health advice behind the position that we have taken and that is what people should follow because, of course, education is very important as well, especially for people's long-term health," he told Sky News.

In Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the country will go into lockdown for the rest of January, with a legal requirement to stay at home and schools closed to most pupils until February.

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