Boris Johnson will directly appeal to parents to send their children back to school, amid fears they are the final stumbling block in the Government’s efforts to return youngsters to full-time education.
The Prime Minister will say on Monday that “nothing will have a greater effect on their life chances” than continuing to keep children at home when schools return at the start of September.
He’ll warn that it would be “far more damaging for a child’s development and their health and wellbeing to be away from school any longer.”
“That is why it’s vitally important that we get our children back into the classroom to learn and to be with their friends. Nothing will have a greater effect on the life chances of our children than returning to school,” he will add.
His intervention comes amid concern within the Government that “natural reservations” over a return have been hardwired into parents by months of messaging about the health risks of Covid-19.
“We are very keen to build confidence. We cannot assume it, we have to build it,” said a source.
With data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing six in ten parents are worried about the health risks from their children’s return to school, the Prime Minister recently sought to reassure them with Government medical evidence that the chances of contracting Covid-19 were “very small”.
Ministers are increasingly confident unions, schools and teachers have been won over in the bid to get every child back to school next week, after efforts were scuppered earlier this summer.
Only a third of primary school pupils in the target year groups, and just one in eight students in Years 10 and 12, attended school on the average school day in July.
Mr Johnson and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will visit schools this coming week to reassure teachers and parents as the Government steps up its back-to-school campaign in broadcast, print and social media. Mr Johnson repeated that there was a “moral duty” to get children back in schools.
Recent ONS data found that while 89 per cent of parents expected their children to return to school or college next month, 62 per cent said they were very or somewhat worried about them doing so. Nearly six in ten of those cited fears of their child catching Covid-19.
“If parents are saying they have concerns, we are listening. When it comes to your children there is nothing more precious. Given that health and safety has been key to this pandemic, that has obviously influenced people who are getting these messages,” said a source.
In a fresh move to bolster confidence following an open letter from the UK’s four chief medical officers at the weekend, Public Health England (PHE) revealed schools reopening in June did not lead to a single child being hospitalised with Covid-19.
Its data showed that despite more than 1.6 million youngsters returning to education, just 70 children tested positive for the virus and none needed hospital treatment.
In contrast, 128 staff members were diagnosed with the virus, and PHE said most of the transmission had come from adults. Schools have been told to improve their hygiene to prevent outbreaks. Staff members were also found to be no more likely to contract the virus than the general population.
The research showed cases were far more likely to happen in areas experiencing high levels of the virus, suggesting high rates of community infection were responsible for the outbreaks.
The data comes after England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty and his three counterparts said the chances of children dying of Covid-19 were “exceptionally small.”
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said the Government had made the task more difficult for itself by its mixed messaging and the A-level grading fiasco which had undermined parents’ trust in ministers.
“The Government is to blame for this because its messaging has been so ambivalent. Now its needs to have a clear message, namely that it is completely safe to return,” said the former cabinet minister.
“It has left it very late and the debacle of exam results means parents don’t trust the Government anymore. We have to have clear messaging and we have to take on the unions. If we lose this battle, it will set the terms for the Government’s future,” he said.
Government guidance has advised schools to keep classes apart, consider staggered breaks and starts, apply social distancing rules as far as practicable, and tighten hygiene practices. They also face fines if children are unlawfully off school.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the head teachers’ union ASCL, said that despite the measures and scientific advice, it would not mean there was “no risk.”
“However, this has to be set against the educational risk to pupils of missing school, and we agree with the Chief Medical Officer that the balance is very strongly in favour of children returning to the classroom,” he told the Telegraph.
“Some parents will be anxious about the prospect of their children returning to school given the circumstances, and it will take time to build confidence.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of NEU, the biggest classroom union, said it backed the medical advice, adding that it was vital the Government took “every step it can both to allow this wider re-opening and to keep the R rate below 1.”
The unions, however, said the Government had failed to spell out a ‘Plan B’ in the event of local outbreaks and potential lockdowns, with Mr Johnson having indicated that schools will be prioritised to stay open while other venues shut.
The Department for Education has stipulated children should receive the same level of education if there are local or national lockdowns, and tasked Ofsted to oversee it.
But Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, said the Government needed to draw up “absolutely clear” plans for what and how children should be learning through online classes or through rotas and the role of Ofsted in policing it.
“The Prime Minister is going to lead this and I welcome that. What I would like to see from him is a long-term plan for education on how we address children left behind in the Covid-19 pandemic, close the attainment gap between disadvantaged and better-off children and close our skills deficit,” he said.