Education secretary uses Danish schools example to fend off union criticism

Gavin Williamson, secretary of state, education

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has told teachers’ unions opposed to the government’s decision to reopen primary schools on 1 June that the experience of Denmark and the Netherlands shows that restarting classes can be done safely.

Williamson said the government would mirror the approach taken in the two countries: “Schools have started to return in Denmark and have not seen a negative impact as a result of that. This has reconfirmed this approach is the right approach.”

Teaching unions wrote to Williamson this week underlining that school staff were not being protected at work by social distancing rules – unlike employees in other sectors. They said: “Classrooms of four and five-year-olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread. We do not think that the government should be posing this level of risk to our society.”

The education secretary, however, criticised “scaremongering” and told the House of Commons that teachers, children and their families would have access to testing if they felt unwell. He added that a sub-group of Sage, the government’s advisory committee, had worked closely with his department.

Denmark’s infection rate has fallen since the reopening of kindergartens and primary schools a month ago, with an R rate now at 0.7. It had been at 0.9.

It is thought that children are less affected by Covid-19 than adults although why this may be is not yet fully understood. But Osama Rahman, chief scientific adviser to the Department for Education, told the science and technology select committee yesterday that there was a “low degree of confidence” in any evidence suggesting that children transmit Covid-19 less than adults.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of teachers’ union NASUWT, described Rahman’s statement as “shocking and disturbing”.

He added: “The government has simply not provided a single shred of evidence that opening schools from June 1st will be safe for children or for teachers.

“The government’s health and safety guidance to make schools ‘Covid-19 Secure’ is also woefully inadequate, and has done nothing to assure teachers or parents that it will be safe for schools to open to more children.

“Schools have been placed in a situation where the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying.”

In parliament, Labour’s education shadow, Rebecca Long-Bailey, said schools should not be asked to “scramble to implement an unrealistic plan by a specific date”.

The letter sent to Williamson came from the National Education Union and was signed by representatives of all teaching unions. It said: “We all want schools to re-open, but that should only happen when it is safe to do so. The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, siblings and relatives, and to the wider community.”

Some MPs said Williamson’s advice to look at the Danish example was pointless, given that Denmark has had 533 deaths while the UK has had more than 30,000.

Denmark was the first country in Europe to reopen its primary schools, after containing the virus from its outset. The Netherlands on the other hand has seen more than 5,500 deaths but while Danish schools restarted midway through April, Dutch primary schools only opened their doors, in a limited fashion, from this week.

6 Responses to Education secretary uses Danish schools example to fend off union criticism

  1. Avatar
    Sally 14 May 2020 at 3:41 pm #

    Can the minister show us how social distancing is working in a Danish class of 15 4-5 year olds? No we are only being shown the older years because these are the ones that can social distance. In Denmark they have 1 adult to each 10 children. In Norway they are having a ratio of 1 adult to every 3 kindergarten children.
    Teacher’s aren’t saying we won’t go back we are saying we will go back when government can provide us with a workable model.
    Saying take back 4-5 year olds and maintain social distancing while keeping most toys locked away is impossible. They are too young and need physical contact with their teachers and others. Forcing them into a classroom where they have to stay away from peers and adults, where their basic needs cannot be met is cruel.
    Just a little point as to how impossible it is we don’t even have individual desks, we have 5 large circular desks which measure 1.6m across, so even if we were willing to have 4-5 year olds sat at desks all day (which would be seriously harmful to their development) How do people propose we do this with the current furniture in the classroom?
    If MP’s had said years 10 and 12 go back, or even 5 and 6, they would not have been met with nearly as much disagreement. But then it’s easier for parents to work from home with these older age ranges.
    Ministers need to be honest. This is not about children’s well-being or education. This is about childcare so parents can work, whether it is safe or not.

    • Avatar
      Theresa 16 May 2020 at 2:49 pm #

      Totally agree with you.
      If they sent year 6 back for 2 weeks & then monitored & maybe one other year group there would not be so much resistance.
      Sending 3 or 4 year groups at once means that schools do not have enough rooms for smaller groups.

      In Denmark children do not start school until the year they are 6, the classes are smaller and school’s better equipped. The first 3 years they only attend in the morning.

      We are being asked to take 3 or in some cases 4 year groups at once.
      Utter madness!

      It is simply wanting childcare so parents can return to work!

  2. Avatar
    Joanna 15 May 2020 at 11:29 am #

    I think this is a great example. Our school has done really quite superbly at doing this. Whilst there have clearly been some hugging from the younger children after a few weeks they were all used to it. We just showed them different ways of doing a high five. Using elbows and feet. Whilst they are not 100% social distancing we have done risk assessments and adjusted where necessary.

    The children have enjoyed being in school and adjusting had been no where near as bad as people might think. The school have remained open throughout servicing key workers. We have had no confirmed cases of Covid amongst the children.

    The toys are wiped down every evening with 2 in 1 disenfectant and cleansing wipes and the children take part in the touch point cleaning throughout the day. We award house points for this too.

    I can’t see why some schools and teachers are finding this to be so difficult. It’s not easy, don’t get me wrong but if you embrace the change and get the children and parents involved in coming up with ideas and new ways of doing things…. it’s easier than you think.

    It’s here to stay for a while, so time to find solutions and not problems.

    • Avatar
      Melanie 17 May 2020 at 1:54 pm #

      Exactly this! You have found a way to work around the challenges. Surely this should be the mindset of all schools like every other industry has had to do.
      If online teaching can’t be done, then there has to be a way to get children back in to school whether it’s now or September. The 3 schools my children are in have made no attempt at onine teaching, it continues to be ‘home work’ sent online. I’m disappointed that no attempt has been made to find new ways or working like every other industry has had to do.

      Whilst the government has only given 3 weeks to open its unfair to say in my view that there has been no time to plan. Surely schools must have been using the last 7 weeks to map out different scenarios for children coming back to school like every other industry is having to do to plan for the next 6 months. We all knew very early on as this unfolded that it wasn’t going to be back to normal any time soon.

      Key worker children have been in school for some time. If there had been a rise in teachers or children getting covid because of school contact it would have been reported on to the endth degree. School life will be different, i’ve seen the media and teachers posting on social media how it won’t be the same school life and it will scare children, this just isn’t good enough. Bringing them back in to school can be done without scare factor in my view. My children have adapted quicker than we have to this ‘new’ normal.

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    Gareth 16 May 2020 at 11:55 am #

    I think the response needs to be at a much more regional level. Where I live the prevelance and death rates are pretty low (probably similar to the Danish national picture) so benefits of a return probably outweigh costs. If you are in an area where prevelance is still high then a reluctance without efficient testing and tracking is understandable.
    What would make sense across the country would be to make a greater effort to get vulnerable children into school. Rates of take up have been low it seems.

  4. Avatar
    Brendan 17 May 2020 at 11:19 pm #

    This union Teachers excuse is lame, tell that to council workers, hospital staff, delivery drivers, take away restaurant staff, police and emergency workers! Come on teachers average age 80 plus, children under 14 not as big as carriers as we where first told. And lets look at Denmark, Austria, Norway, and now New Zealand this week. Ps average class size in Denmark is 17, not 15, maybe a pay cut is in order as they are on full play. This is a joke. They have lost my respect with this excuse.
    And if we are to say we are all in this together? I think the teachers uniin probaly should think about that one.

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