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Poor children need schools to restart, says Steve Chalke

15 May 2020


The Revd Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Academy Trust

The Revd Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Academy Trust

SCHOOLS need to restart as soon as possible for the sake of the children of poor families, the founder of the Oasis Academy Trust, the Revd Steve Chalke, has said.

Interviewed on Friday, he said that Covid-19 “has magnified hardship”. In his view, schools can “release the pressure valve for families living in places where there’s no space or quiet”.

The Oasis Trust operates 35 schools, in which at least 45 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals. All are due to open their doors again to pupils from non-key-worker families on 1 June, in line with the Government’s roadmap out of the coronavirus lockdown, beginning with primary school and nursery-age children.

Opposition to the move has come from teaching unions, who have asked to see the scientific evidence that shows that a return to school will not trigger a second peak.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said that the “primary consideration is the health and safety of teachers and pupils. We want schools to be able to reopen when they can demonstrate that it is safe to do so.”

Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union, said: “We have always said that the time must be right, and there must be a clear, and robust set of guidance which ensures that this can be done in a way which is safe.”

Mr Chalke, a Baptist minister, spoke on Friday about different experiences of the pandemic across the social classes. “I’m from a working-class background and I’m middle class now, whether I like it or not. But families in tower blocks face different challenges during the pandemic, and we have a duty to help the lowly paid and poorly housed, who are suffering disproportionately.” Many had little access to the internet, and were thus unable to connect to schoolwork at home.

Although the Oasis academies would open, no pupils or staff would be forced to attend if they felt it would be unsafe, he said.

“The idea that we are even ‘re-opening’ is false. The Government asked us to work with the children of key workers and vulnerable families anyway, so this is a stepping-up process,” he said.

“The Government advice is that you can’t have more than 15 kids in a classroom, and that’s wise. Every Oasis school building is different: some have separate entrances, and large windows and wide corridors.

“We also don’t want to pressurise any staff to return if they don’t feel ready. We work out our own plans with individual schools — each method is bespoke. We can guarantee two metres of separation; rooms will be cleaned after each session; and there will be throw-away cutlery at lunch. We also ordered PPE masks right at the beginning of the pandemic.”

His staff had not lost touch with their communities during the lockdown, he said. “We have had school staff volunteering in our food banks, and we provide plates of hot food, and supplied laptops, as well as visits from youth workers to kids in socially isolated situations — so we know what the community wants.

“We’re a Christ-centred organisation — we want to include everyone. Doing this is part of our theology. However, no staff member or child should come back to work unless they’re comfortable. We also regularly talk to the unions as part of our policy, including the NEU.”

The Oasis Trust is a non-denominational charity. But its policy is matched by official Church of England guidance for Anglican schools. This states: “As parents and staff are concerned about both the feasibility and the wisdom behind a phased return from 1 June, we are pleased that the scientific evidence behind these proposals has been set out in order to give confidence.

“The phased plan to bring back a limited number of year groups initially will rely on ongoing monitoring to keep track of the situation.

“The schools will decide how this phased return works in practical terms. We will continue to work to support school leaders at a local level as they move towards a phased reopening at the pace dictated by local circumstances and the overarching science.”

On Thursday, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that prolonging school closures risked widening “the disadvantage gap”.

During a virtual proceeding of the House of Lords, Bishop Butler asked a follow-up question in response to a Government statement given in the House of Commons on the opening of schools during the pandemic. 

Bishop Butler said: “I am grateful to the Minister and the Secretary of State for meeting myself and the Church of England education team earlier in the week. The longer that children are learning from home, the wider the disadvantage gap that may well be developing. Does the Minister agree that the risks of not reopening schools in a managed and phased way are actually greater than the logistical challenges presented by reopening?”

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, Baroness Berridge, replied: “We in the department are particularly aware of the risks for disadvantaged students and the attainment gap the longer that schools remain closed. I have to say that the teachers and the heads of trusts that I have spoken to are keen to reopen schools because they are particularly concerned about the learning loss for disadvantaged students and the challenges they face to re-engage them in school.”

Comment: a teacher’s fears about a 1 June return to school

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