School reopening drive is 'last chance' for Gavin Williamson

‘Don’t sack Gavin Williamson, he’s our secret weapon’, say teachers: Unions say Education Secretary is a ‘useful idiot’ – as ministers believe he has ‘one last chance’ to save his career by ensuring schools reopen next week

  • Ministers say Gavin Williamson is on his ‘last chance’ to save his cabinet job
  • Test will be his handling of full school reopenings slated for September
  • Unions don’t want him sacked because he is a ‘very useful idiot’ and has previously bowed to pressure from teacher groups
  • Sir Keir Starmer said government mishandling posed a ‘serious risk’ after a ‘week of chaos’

Gavin Williamson has one ‘last chance’ to save his Cabinet position, with Ministers suggesting his final test will be the reopening of schools in nine days time.

But some of the country’s biggest education and teaching unions don’t want to see him sacked, instead branding him their ‘very useful idiot’.

The under-fire Education Secretary has said he is committed to doing ‘everything necessary’ to ensure pupils are back in the classroom for September, following the fiasco over A-Level, GCSE and BTEC grades. 

Despite Downing Street’s resistance to removing Mr Williamson because they ‘back their people’, the 44-year-old secretary is clinging on to his post ahead of another significant challenge.

Boris Johnson has said that it is a ‘moral duty’ to get all children back into schools in England next month, as pupils in Scotland have already returned. 

But Sir Keir Starmer called the Prime Minister’s commitment a ‘serious risk’ after a ‘week of chaos’, saying that while he supported the decision to get kids back to school the government had wasted precious time ‘clearing up a mess of the Government’s own making’. 

Writing in the Observer today, the Labour leader said: ‘Ministers should have spent the summer implementing a national plan to get all children back to school.

‘Instead, the last two weeks have been wasted clearing up a mess of the Government’s own making over exam results.’

Downing St believe that failure to reopen schools next month is not an option, and the UK’s Chief Medical Officers have told parents their children would face an ‘exceptionally small risk’ from Covid-19 in the classroom.

In other coronavirus developments in Britain:

  • Gavin Williamson defended his seaside break in Scarborough after arriving back just days before the A-levels fiasco which has rocked his position;
  • A former chief scientific adviser warned that coronavirus will be present ‘forever’ and people are likely to need regular vaccinations against it; 
  • Six million furloughed people broke the rules by doing their jobs from home during lockdown despite the ban on work, a major new report has found;
  • Britain’s Chief Medical Officers have unanimously told parents their children can return to classrooms next month as they face a ‘small risk’ from Covid-19;
  • Scotland’s 73 per cent spike in new coronavirus cases drives the UK to its highest Saturday total for eight weeks, with 1,288 infections;
  • Andy Burnham has said the coronavirus restrictions in Greater Manchester are working and driving down case numbers of cases.

Gavin Williamson has one ‘last chance’ to save his Cabinet position, with Ministers suggesting his final test will be the reopening of schools in nine days time

Mr Williamson will now have to keep teachers, parents and unions on side by convincing schools are safe to reopen fully as parts of the country see spikes in coronavirus cases. 

One minister said Mr Williamson needed to show he had a ‘hands-on grip of your department’, while another said that reopening schools would be ‘his last chance’.

Union leaders however are secretly supportive of Mr Williamson, describing him as ‘parlously weak’ which has allowed ‘other figures in the education sector to be heard’. 

It is believed their opposition to all pupils returning in July was the core reason ministers were forced to shelve their original plans. 

One leader told The Telegraph they refrained from calling for his resignation because ‘when your enemies make a mistake, why interrupt them.’ 

But some of the country’s biggest education and teaching unions don’t want to see him sacked, instead branding him their ‘very useful idiot’ 

‘We had a meeting with another union and we’re in complete agreement, we don’t want him to go because he’s a very useful idiot for us. We don’t want him to be sacked.’ 

A Government source responded by saying: ‘Getting all children back to school at the start of term is a national priority. That’s what the unions should be focused on rather than playing political games.’

The Prime Minister is set to take over the push for children returning to schools by conducting a school visit as the government launches a publicity campaign. 

Mr Williamson’s response to the exam crisis has been met with a mixture of ridicule and anger from thousands of teenagers who had their predicted grades downgraded by an algorithm

It comes as some senior Tories are worried Mr Williamson would be unable to lead the drive after the damage from A Levels day.

Today Mr Williamson hit back at claims he was on holiday as the A-Level results fiasco unfolded in the UK, saying he was only in Scarborough to visit his relatives. 

He added that he had also cancelled his family’s holiday to remain in the country and deal with problems caused by algorithms downgrading student results.

Mr Williamson was in the northern seaside town for a week from August 2, and returned just days before the A-level results came out on August 13.

It is also understood that he cancelled a key meeting with the department while he was in North Yorkshire.

‘I cancelled our family holiday abroad this year to focus on the challenges COVID-19 created for the education sector,’ he said in a tweet.

‘Over the summer, I went to see family in Scarborough for the first time since lockdown, and while there I was in constant communication with the Department.’ 

The Department for Education has already faced scathing criticism earlier this month after an Education Minister went on holiday in the French Alps while teenagers in Britain went ‘through hell’ over their exam grades.

The Mail on Sunday can reveal that as students worried over their futures, Gillian Keegan enjoyed hiking trips, mountain biking and dips in a mountain lake – and boasted about them on Instagram. This picture was posted on A-level results day

The Mail on Sunday revealed that as students worried over their futures, Gillian Keegan enjoyed hiking trips, mountain biking and dips in a mountain lake – and boasted about them on Instagram. 

And Astonishingly, Mr Williamson was found to have ‘liked’ several of her posts while he was up in North Yorkshire

Mrs Keegan is Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills at the Department for Education and, crucially, is jointly responsible for post-16 education strategy.

But as the exam fiasco reached its climax, she decided to remain in France – even as quarantine restrictions came into effect that would require her to self-isolate for 14 days on her eventual return to the UK.

Rural chalet in the French Alps where Mrs Keegan spent her holiday. Mrs Keegan is Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills at the Department for Education and, crucially, is jointly responsible for post-16 education strategy

On August 15, two days after the A-level results in England were released, she wrote on social media: ‘We will have to make the most of it [our holiday] as we will be #quarantined for 14 days when we get back’. The post was accompanied by an emoji of a woman shrugging.

Mrs Keegan did not respond to this newspaper’s requests for comment about her getaway.

However, she now faces the prospect of being unable to attend the Commons in person when it resumes on September 1 because she may still be in quarantine.

Mr Williamson also declined to comment, with sources saying it was not policy ‘to comment on Ministerial diaries’.

It IS safe to go back to school: PM says failure to reopen is not an option as UK’s Chief Medical Officers tell parents their children can return to classrooms next month as they face an exceptionally small risk’ from Covid

ByGlen Owen Political Editor For The Mail On Sundayand Emer Scully For Mailonline 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said failure to reopen schools next month is not an option – as the UK’s Chief Medical Officers tell parents their children face an ‘exceptionally small risk’ from Covid-19 in the classroom. 

The highly unusual ‘consensus statement’ from the country’s most senior experts removes the final hurdle to the resumption of full-time teaching in September – to the relief of parents who have been forced to home-school the majority of children since March.

Meanwhile, a Whitehall source told The Daily Telegraph Downing Street has made clear there can be ‘no ifs, no buts’ in delivering on the national priority. 

‘Schools not coming back is not an option,’ they added. ‘Failure is not an option.’ 

All 12 Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officers agree that ‘very few, if any, teenagers will come to long-term harm from Covid-19 due solely to attending school’. 

And they say that small risk has to be offset against ‘a certainty of long-term harm to many children from not attending school’.

The experts also conclude that ‘teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19’ compared to other workers, and say that the evidence from other countries is that reopening schools is not linked to a surge in cases.

Pupils sit apart during a socially distanced language lesson at Longdendale High School on July 16, 2020 in Hyde, England

Their reassuring statement comes after Boris Johnson issued a rallying cry in The Mail on Sunday a fortnight ago, telling union leaders trying to block the reopening of schools that the country had a ‘moral duty’ to resume lessons. 

And last week Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer argued – also in this newspaper – that Mr Johnson had a ‘moral responsibility’ to carry out his promise.

The intervention of the medical experts came as:

  • Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, the Minister responsible for getting schools to reopen, faced new criticism over his handling of the A-level results fiasco as it was revealed he took a holiday just days before the crisis unfolded; 
  • The Government said that 41,423 people had died in the UK within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 by yesterday, an increase of 18 on the day before; 
  • Town hall chiefs in the North West claimed they were being ‘punished’ with draconian new lockdown restrictions for having good testing regimes; 
  • Sources said senior figures across Government were being briefed to prepare for a second UK-wide lockdown in November in a ‘worst-case scenario’ if infection rates continue to rise; 
  • Former Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport warned that coronavirus will be present ‘forever’, not eradicated like smallpox, and people are likely to need regular vaccinations against it, as they do for flu; 
  • The US government’s leading health research body raised major concerns about a secretive Chinese laboratory suspected to be the source of the pandemic, and demanded answers about the ‘apparent disappearance’ of a scientist there who is considered to be ‘Patient Zero’; 
  • Britons scrambled to get back from Croatia, Austria and Trinidad and Tobago before new quarantine restrictions came into force, while others raced to book bank holiday breaks in Portugal after it was ‘green-listed’ as safe.

In their statement, the Medical Officers brush aside teaching unions’ safety fears by declaring that ‘there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19’.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (pictured), the Minister responsible for getting schools to reopen, faced new criticism over his handling of the A-level results fiasco as it was revealed he took a holiday just days before the crisis unfolded

They said the fatality rate for children aged five to 15 who become infected was just 14 in a million, ‘lower than for most seasonal flu infections’, and while every death of a child is a tragedy, ‘almost all deaths [from Covid] are in children with significant pre-existing health conditions’.

The experts report that just one in a thousand children under nine who show Covid symptoms would need hospital treatment, a figure that rises to three in a thousand for ten-to-19-year-olds.

That is still an order of magnitude lower than the four per cent rate for the general population, and the experts add: ‘Most of these children make a rapid recovery.’

Set against this tiny risk, the scientists say: ‘We are confident that multiple sources of evidence show that a lack of schooling increases inequalities, reduces the life chances of children and can exacerbate physical and mental health issues.’

Pupils arrive at Kelso High School on August 11 on the Scottish Borders as schools in Scotland started reopening amid concerns about the safety of returning to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic

Although the officers accept that ‘transmission of Covid-19 to staff members in school does occur’, they believe it to be largely ‘staff to staff’, which can be limited through ‘social distancing and good infection control’. 

They attempted to reassure staff by saying that the data points to teaching being a ‘lower risk profession’. 

The experts concede that the connections between households forged by schools returning, such as contact at the school gates or more people using public transport, ‘will put some upward pressure on transmission’ but said that ‘other work and social environments… are likely to be more important’.

However, their remarks came as coronavirus cases were reported in at least 41 schools in Berlin, two weeks after the city’s 825 schools reopened.

Last night, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that the ‘incredibly small’ health risks should be balanced against the overwhelming evidence ‘that not going to school damages children in the long run and that includes their long-term chances. 

‘It increases the risks of disparities, it entrenches deep-rooted problems, it increases the risk that they have mental and physical ill health in the long run.’

He added the transmission rates across the UK were broadly flat and said: ‘The evidence from other parts of the world is that, when schools have opened, this has not led to a sudden surge in transmission that looks as if it’s due to the schools opening.

Mr Whitty – who signed the statement with his colleagues from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and their total of eight deputies after considering a wide range of experts and research – also noted that there might have to be ‘other restrictions’ in local lockdowns in order to keep schools open.

He said: ‘We have to make really quite difficult choices. There are no easy choices in confronting coronavirus.’ 

Dr Patrick Roach of the NASUWT teachers’ union said: ‘The Chief Medical Officers’ statement has reinforced the critical importance of risk control measures. 

‘Governments across the UK must take steps to ensure that there are effective systems in place to monitor schools’ practices and to provide ongoing reassurance on safety after schools reopen.’ 

Senior Conservative MPs have called for Mr Johnson to take the lead on schools over from Mr Williamson.

Their concerns have been echoed by several Cabinet ministers, with one saying: ‘We’ve got to get schools back. That’s the test for him,’ according to the Telegraph.

Some primary school year groups started heading from to the classroom in June, with secondary years 10 and 12 allowed limited face-to-face contact.

A lack of confidence among parents was blamed for relatively low attendance rates. 

It is hoped the consensus of the experts will encourage more parents to trust their children will be safe at school in September. 

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