Tory MPs warn Boris Johnson - schools must fully reopen by Easter

Gordon Rayner
·5-min read
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson - Shutterstock
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson - Shutterstock
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

Schoolchildren have become the pandemic’s “forgotten victims”, Tory MPs have warned Boris Johnson, amid a growing backlash against plans that could keep classrooms closed until Easter.

A dozen Conservative MPs, including the former Cabinet minister Esther McVey and Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, have backed a campaign by the parents’ pressure group UsforThem to fully reopen schools.

They argue that the schools shutdown means education has become an “optional extra”, with the gulf between the most disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers growing “by the day”.

At the same time, the pressure on parents who are trying to hold down full-time jobs while also acting as teachers “is simply becoming too much”, they say, meaning schools should reopen now.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, is expected to announce as soon as this week that schools will remain shut to all but the most vulnerable and children of key workers beyond the February half-term break.

On Sunday Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said the full reopening of schools before the Easter holiday was merely a “hope” rather than an expectation.

Ms McVey said: “We genuinely seem to have forgotten about school children. Millions of them are missing out on an education, not developing socially with their friends and aren’t allowed to enrich their lives by playing sports and music any more.

“They are the pandemic’s forgotten victims and we’ve got to start thinking about their prospects and futures as well.”

The clamour for schools to reopen is likely to grow this week after the number of daily infections fell by 22 per cent over the past seven days, with 30,004 new cases reported on Sunday.

The number of patients admitted to hospital also fell slightly, with the seven-day average down by 6.3 per cent, though deaths continue to rise, with another 610 reported on Sunday.

The positive figures will also intensify calls for the government to lay out plans for lifting lockdown. It has emerged that last week Mr Hancock extended lockdown laws to enable councils to keep retail and hospitality businesses shut until July 17, but The Telegraph understands that the Government is discussing a plan to reopen pubs and hotels by June, partly to ensure the G7 summit in Cornwall can go ahead.

One option is to reopen hospitality with social distancing and the Rule of Six for a period of 12 weeks, to allow for all over-50s to have their second vaccination, before allowing a return to near normality at the end of the summer.

UsforThem is a volunteer organisation, which was set up by parents and grandparents in response to the closure of schools last spring and argues that if the Government does not reopen schools it must publish an assessment of the “huge amount of harm” being done to children.

Ms McVey said keeping classrooms shut was having a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, increasing “by the day” the attainment gap between them and their peers from wealthier areas and families according to the Social Mobility Commission.

She added: “Education should not be treated as some sort of optional extra. It is an essential and critical service just like healthcare and the food provision.

“And for the millions of parents who are trying their best to hold down a job whilst performing the duties of childcare and teacher at the same time, the pressure is simply becoming too much.”

The alternative is to “let down an entire generation”, she said.

Other Tory MPs who have joined the campaign include Steve Brine, the former health minister, and Ben Bradley, former Tory Party vice chairman, who said narrowing the education gap was fundamental to Mr Johnson’s promise of “levelling up” the country.

He said: “Each day they are out of the classroom, the most disadvantaged children are falling behind in their education and their life chances are poorer as a result. In my view it’s storing up huge issues for the future that are being grossly underestimated.”

Asked on Sunday about reports that schools will not open before the Easter holidays, Mr Hancock told the BBC’s Andrew Marr: “Throughout this crisis we have looked at the data, we’ve made sure that we’ve taken action as early as we can but rapidly if we need to.

“And of course I hope that schools go back after Easter, of course I do. The vaccination programme is going fast, but we’ve got to make sure that we get the cases down and we’ve got to protect the country from new variants coming in from abroad.”

Robert Halfon, the Tory MP and chairman of Parliament’s education select committee, described the possibility of a delay until Easter as “grim news for pupils and parents”.

He said: “We need to get our children learning again. The engine of Government should be directed towards opening our schools.

“We face an epidemic of educational poverty and [poor] mental health otherwise.”

Mr Williamson has promised to give schools two weeks’ notice of reopening, meaning he must make a decision in the coming days in order to tell head teachers before they break up for half term on Feb 12 whether they will be reopening for the remainder of the term.

A senior Government source said: “Over the next week we’ll be looking at the data. We obviously want schools to go back as soon as possible but it depends on the numbers we are seeing.”