Primary schools reopening as parents remain wary

Primary schools in England are to begin bringing back more children – but parents face a very mixed local picture in how schools are reopening.

Surveys suggest half of parents might not send in their children – and in some areas schools will still be shut.

Children in Reception, Years 1 and 6 are able to return, with many having been out of school for 10 weeks.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says children “will be with their teachers and friends again”.

Schools have remained open throughout the lockdown for the children of key workers and vulnerable children, but now they are inviting back millions more primary pupils.

The day will look very different for those pupils returning – with staggered drop-off times and children staying in small groups of no more than 15 pupils.

It remains uncertain how many families will take up the offer for their children to return.

A study from the National Foundation for Educational Research, based on 1,200 school leaders, suggests:

The reopening of schools will have many local variations – spread out over the next couple of weeks and with many schools making their own arrangements over which year groups return and for how many days a week.

The most senior NHS doctor for children and young people’s health, Professor Prathiba Chitsabesan, has warned parents to watch out for signs of children being anxious about returning to school after so much time away.

‘Contradictory information’

Jane Reid, a parent from York, said it was still not safe for her son to go back, saying: “It’s a definite no from me.

“Plus, the contradictory information is infuriating. I can take him to school, but can’t get his hair cut.”

“How can I send them to school now, knowing it will be impossible for teachers to implement social distancing rules properly?” asked Valerie Brooker from Haslemere in Surrey.

But Melanie Freeman supported her children going back – reassured by her school’s “very strict stance” on safety.

In a post on the BBC News Family and Education Facebook page, she said she liked the fact pupils would only be going in two days a week and in groups of no more than 15.

For some parents the decision has been taken out of their hands. Lancashire County Council is among those saying it is not yet safe to open schools.

A mother in Lancashire, who wanted to remain anonymous, has described this as a relief as she did not want her child to go back, although her husband did.

Ministers say opening schools will help with childcare for parents going back to work – and to help children catch up with missed lessons.

From 15 June secondary pupils will start to return, in Years 10 and 12 – and there are plans for all primary years to go back for the last month of term.

Parents have complained about the complications of juggling work and childcare, including those with jobs in schools.

On the website Kerry from Middlesex says she works for two hours a day at lunchtimes in a school that is now reopening.

Grandparents would usually provide childcare for her two year old, but that is not possible with the lockdown, so she faces a return to work at school, but without any childcare. “I don’t know where I stand,” she says.

Nurseries and early years’ providers are also opening, and a survey of 4,500 parents with young children, carried out by the Early Years Alliance, indicated a divided picture on take-up.

The biggest reason for parents not sending in their children was concern about safety.

Chief executive Neil Leitch warned the row over the prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings travelling during lockdown threatened to undermine parents’ trust on safety measures.

The concern was echoed by the Royal Society of Arts which published a survey of more than 2,000 adults in the UK showing 49% think the government is too caught up in the “Dominic Cummings affair” to be making the right decisions about schools.

Mary Bousted, co-leader of the National Education Union, said it would be “deeply insulting and dangerous” if the return of schools was used as a “distraction”.

The teachers’ union has continued to warn there is a lack of certainty about the safety of the return to school.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Throughout this pandemic, our decisions have been based on the best scientific and medical advice.

“While there might be some nervousness, I want to reassure parents and teachers that the welfare of children and staff continues to be the heart of all of our considerations.”

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Councils throw 1 June schools plan into doubt

Scores of local councils say they cannot guarantee primaries will reopen on 1 June, throwing government plans to get pupils back to school into chaos.

Only 20 of 99 English councils to respond to a BBC Breakfast survey said they were advising schools to open more widely on Boris Johnson’s target date.

Of the 99 who responded, two thirds (68), could not guarantee schools would reopen to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

It comes as the government prepares to publish scientific advice on its plan.

Ministers have been insisting that they would only be calling on schools in England to reopen if the scientific advice said it was safe to do so.

Safety concerns

Teaching unions, heads and politicians have been calling for that advice to be made public.

BBC Breakfast carried out a snap-shot survey of the 150 local authorities that oversee primary schools over the past 48 hours.

It also showed:

It is the head teachers and the governing bodies on the ground who need to make arrangements for social distancing or keeping children within small groups to limit the potential spread of infection.

Schools across England have been open to small numbers of vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers since they formally closed at the end of March.

But the prime minister announced plans for a phased reopening of primaries from 1 June, when he set out the government’s plans to move gradually out of lockdown measures on 10 May.

Almost immediately, teaching unions and head teachers warned of safety concerns and practicalities in many schools which, they argued, made safety measures unfeasible.

‘Cautious approach’

And, with scientific evidence on the way the virus is spread by children limited, there are concerns the wider opening of schools could lead to a second spike in Covid-19.

Teaching unions also called for a more regional approach, with local authorities being given the final call.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson made a plea for the sector to let children get back to school, and a string of ministers lined up to try to persuade parents, many of whom are concerned about a return, that schools would be safe.

But, as opposition continued to grow, there has been a softening of the government’s approach.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Robert Buckland, said the government was prepared to listen to the concerns of head teachers and council leaders, and hinted it might step back from the 1 June date.

He also acknowledged schools would not reopen in a uniform way across England after half term.

The governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not yet set a date for their schools to reopen.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We want children back in schools as soon as possible because being with their teachers and friends is so important for their education and their well-being.”

He added that plans for a cautious, phased return of some children was based on the best scientific and medical advice and insisted the department had been engaging closely with a range of organisations including the teaching unions.

But Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said support for a fixed date for school return was vanishing quickly.

“What is needed now is local flexibility to determine when it is right for schools to open up to more pupils.”

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Brenda Jenkins obituary

To countless middle-aged people around Dorking, Surrey, who were once pupils at Powell Corderoy school, my mother, Brenda Jenkins, who has died aged 96, was always known, slightly reverentially, as Mrs Jenkins. But to her family she was Mum or Grandma.

She started teaching at Powell Corderoy, a state primary, in the mid-1960s and stayed there until her retirement in 1984. She had a real ability to get the best out of children who were struggling, which is why she wanted to work with children with special educational needs.

Born in east London, Brenda was the daughter of Christopher Harley, a merchant at Billingsgate fish market, and his wife, Eleanor, a former milliner. At the outbreak of the second world war Brenda was evacuated to a mining village in South Wales along with other girls from Ilford county high school.

More than 30 years later, watching the children’s TV series Carrie’s War, she spotted it had been filmed in the same village to which she had been evacuated, and as the story unfolded Brenda realised some of the events were very familiar to her own experiences. Only then did she realise that the Nina Mabey with whom she had been at school had later found fame as Nina Bawden, the author of Carrie’s War.

Brenda loved children and always wanted to be a teacher. By the end of the war, after training in Saffron Walden, Essex, she had started teaching, first in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, and later in Ipswich, Suffolk. She married William Jenkins in 1950; they set up home in Chessington, Surrey, and Brenda took a break to raise their four children, Peter, Colin, Marion and me, before starting at Powell Corderoy.

Having children, and later eight grandchildren, kept Brenda in touch with new technology. Even if it required getting completely new skills she would not be daunted. In her 80s she taught herself how to use a computer so she could email her friends and family, and she joined Facebook, passing comments and occasionally posting photos. In her final weeks, when she was isolated at home because of the lockdown, she even managed to make video calls.

Brenda’s rapport with children was obvious from the affection generations of her ex-pupils held her in. She was still in touch with one former pupil she had taught in the late 1940s, and who is now in her late 70s.

She is survived by her children and her grandchildren, Charlie, Liz, Angus, Emily, Sarah, Hetty, Alasdair and Billy.

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England plans to send the wrong children back to school at the wrong time

We have built a world where parents need the childcare provided by the school system. In some families parents are working at night, or rising at 5am to sustain a struggling business before their children wake up. They may more urgently feel the need for schools to reopen than those who can happily juggle a few hours of homeschooling with working from home.

But think about what primary teachers are facing with the prospect of suddenly going back to school with gaggles of five- and six-year-olds. As one infant teacher said on the radio this week: “We’ll have six classes back, so we need at least 12 classrooms, but only have nine. The government has admitted we can’t socially distance, so they’re playing with our health. We are taking the children’s toys away, because they have to be constantly cleaned, what will they do all day? I’ve got four pages of issues like this!”

On the other hand, a headteacher on the same show said: “Sitting around saying it’s too hard is no model for our young people.” Solutions had to be found.

Like the Open University, we now need an Open School for the whole country | Tim Brighouse and Bob Moon

Schools are now hurriedly buying washing troughs and putting up sanitiser stations. Marking parent drop-off areas. Deep-cleaning canteens. Children will play in chalked circles on playgrounds. For a moment it sounds doable. But then, a child coughs in a narrow corridor; another falls and hurts his knee. He’s crying, it’s bleeding. A child with special needs requires help with feeding and there is no protective equipment. And what happens if there’s a fight?

Now imagine: it’s your daughter, your husband, or your best friend who is teaching. Are you happy for them to jump into these situations? It is too easy to be dismissive about low potential harm unless it’s your loved one taking the risk. It is vital that trade unions question hard and push for the safest possible conditions before schools can reopen.

Certainty on safety is not possible, though. The virus is still mysterious and new complexities may yet arise. The experts have admitted a vaccine may never come. But imagine: it is your home at risk because you can’t work, or your sanity dwindling from the 57th day of home schooling, or your six-year-old sobbing because they miss their friends. Your heart’s calculator may now calibrate the risks differently. Schools reopening, at least in some form, would be a lifeline. We need to be smart about this.

In Italy, Spain and Ireland schoolchildren will not return until autumn at the earliest. Wales and Scotland are leaning the same way. Yet, in England, politicians are putting their efforts into fighting with the unions for an early return – and one that initially offers just three year groups a poor, socially distanced, in-a-school-but-not-really-school experience for, at best, six weeks before the end of term.

Meanwhile, many parents will still be unable to work because they have a child in another year group stuck at home but now have the added complexity of a heavily sanitised school run on top of it all.

When the Covid-19 crisis finally ends, schools must never return to normal

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary in England, should stop looking for fights. Instead, he should pause, and focus schools on doing distance learning really well by setting minimum standards for the remainder of the academic year. It seems right, for example, that every child should speak with a teacher at least once a week and receive meaningful feedback on work they have completed during that time.

Meanwhile, schools could survey which parents need childcare, and gradually those children could be integrated alongside the 2% of children still at school each day because their parent is a key worker or they are considered vulnerable. With appetites low for schooling, it is likely demand would be manageable.

Why this approach has been missed is not clear. The Department for Education’s own scientific adviser admits he hasn’t seen any modelling around reopening schools and says the evidence on transmission is mixed. Is this about getting people back to work, or is it a classic Conservative trick of fuelling union strife to divert public attention from government failings and aim it towards a profession with a well-protected salary?

Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be about safety or learning. There are no easy answers but Williamson can find smarter solutions. The question is whether he has the courage.

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Paul Kennedy obituary

My father, Paul Kennedy, who has died aged 78 after suffering from pancreatic cancer, was a writer and sociologist, and a hugely popular lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. His final book, Vampire Capitalism (2018), was a prescient study of the devastating effects of liberal capitalism on both the masses and the environment. He also co-authored, with Robin Cohen, the influential Global Sociology (2000), published in eight languages.

His early published works, including Ghanaian Businessmen (1980) and African Capitalism (1988), focused on development issues in west Africa, where his sympathy towards indigenous entrepreneurs was viewed as heresy by the Marxists dominating the field in the 1970s and 80s. In the late 90s he co-founded the Global Studies Association, working with academics from all over the world to analyse the impact of globalisation on the lives of ordinary people.

Born in Hayes, Middlesex, to Tom Kennedy, a sewing machine mechanic, and his wife, Joyce (nee Coats), a secretary, Paul attended Drayton Manor grammar school in Ealing, west London, then studied sociology at Birmingham University.

On graduating in 1963, he travelled to Ethiopia where he taught English under the Voluntary Service Overseas programme. Returning to the UK two years later, he joined Birmingham University’s Centre for West African Studies. In 1966 he married his teenage sweetheart, Sue Peppin, who worked with children with learning difficulties and later taught English to adult learners. They, along with their baby daughter Anna, moved to Ghana the following year where Paul began his doctoral studies at the University of Ghana, Legon. I was born during this time, in Accra. In 1971 the family returned to the UK and Paul worked at Sussex University for a couple of years before moving to Manchester in 1973, to teach at Manchester Polytechnic.

In 1976 the family moved back to Ghana for Paul to take up a teaching post at Cape Coast University. Cape Coast was then far more impoverished than Accra, and there were severe food shortages, with only rice, plantain and yam readily available to eat. After a few months Paul was hospitalised with hepatitis and the rest of the family, suffering with malnutrition, malaria and hepatitis, returned home. Paul stayed on to finish his contract and became involved in the student protest movement, which saw him arrested at gunpoint and imprisoned for two days.

Back in the UK, Paul joined the sociology department at Manchester Polytechnic where he remained for almost 40 years until his retirement in 2014.

A great nature lover, Paul was a keen ornithologist, gardener, and advocate of sustainable living long before it became a fashion. He was a brilliant cook, famed among his PhD students for his annual Ghanaian curry nights, a member of Altrincham choral and allotment societies and a volunteer at his local wildlife conservation group.

He is survived by Sue, their children, Anna, Rebecca and me, and two grandchildren, Jasmine and Camille.

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Students face full tuition fees for online classes

Universities in England can still charge full tuition fees if their courses are taught online because of the coronavirus outbreak, the government has confirmed.

Students will not be entitled to refunds or compensation “if the quality is there”, said Michele Donelan, the minister of state responsible for the higher education sector.

“We have already seen over the last few months courses being delivered online and virtually at an amazing quality and degree and I know the efforts that staff across the sector have made to be able to facilitate that,” she added.

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“We have always said that we don’t believe students would be entitled to reimbursements of tuition fees if the quality is there. Of course, there are processes that they can follow if they feel that the quality isn’t there.”

It came as the government announced financial support for universities affected by the closure of campuses and a fall in the numbers of international students willing to come to the UK.

The measures include bringing forward £2.6 billion in tuition fee payments and £100 million in research funding from the next academic year. Universities will also be able to use £46m of existing funds for April and May to help students in financial difficulty.

Temporary controls will limit the number of places for UK and EU students for 2020-21 in an attempt to prevent universities from competing to recruit the reduced number of applicants.

Ministers can allocate an additional 10,000 places, with 5,000 ring-fenced for nursing, midwifery or allied health courses.

Universities UK, which represents the sector, welcomed the measures as “recognition from government of the central role that universities will play in the recovery of the economy and communities and the urgent need to provide support for universities to weather the severe financial storm created by Covid-19.”

However the government was also criticised for failing to go far enough to tackle a predicted £2.5m “black hole” in funding for universities across the UK.

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“This package does not deliver the protection or stability that students, staff and the communities they serve so desperately need,” said ​Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, which represents academic staff.

“The Office for Budget Responsibility says universities are most at risk of financial pain from the current crisis and they need more than IOUs to solve the problems they face.

‘Instead of kicking the can down the road, the government must underwrite funding lost from a fall in domestic and international student numbers and remove incentives for universities to compete against each other at a time when we need to be pulling together.’

Shadow further education minister Emma Hardy said: “This disappointing package offers no long-term security to our universities, putting the anchors of our regional economies at risk.

“The government must urgently produce a plan to safeguard the future of our universities and ensure that across the UK everyone has the same opportunity to study at university regardless of where they live.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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Schools will re-open in phases, says Williamson

The re-opening of schools in England is expected to take place in a “phased manner”, says the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

He told the Education Select Committee the date for opening would depend on scientific advice – but schools would get “as much notice as possible”.

But when pupils start returning, it could just be for some year groups.

“All schools returning on day one with a full complement of pupils would not be realistic,” he told MPs.

With schools closed by the coronavirus outbreak, the education secretary faced questions on a timetable for re-opening and how to support the disadvantaged, while pupils were meant to be learning online from home.

Speaking to an online session of the select committee, Mr Williamson said he was keen for schools to return as soon as was safely possible because of the disruption to pupils’ learning.

But he said it would be a staged return, with schools given time to prepare.

Last week, Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union suggested that Years 6, 10 and 12 might go back first, with 1 June the earliest realistic date for starting to return.

The date for returning will be part of a wider, cross-government plan, Mr Williamson told MPs, with a sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) considering how to re-open schools.

The education secretary said he did not expect this term to be extended into the summer holidays – although committee member David Simmonds suggested some schools had been considering this.

Mr Williamson gave more details of the scheme to lend laptops to disadvantaged pupils studying at home – saying there would be 200,000 laptops, with the first expected to be delivered by the end of May, with most arriving in June.

The education secretary was challenged by MPs on failings with the free school meal voucher scheme.

Ian Mearns said school staff were spending “hours and hours” trying to resolve problems with the system being administered by Edenred.

Mr Williamson recognised there had been “big challenges” and the level of service was not what was expected.

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‘The gap will be bigger than ever’: grammar school exams still going ahead

In this time of crisis, exams are off: GCSEs, A-levels, Sats. All except one … the 11-plus, a test that was phased out in most parts of the country decades ago, but that means everything to families in areas still operating a system of grammars and de facto secondary moderns.

A quick scan of grammar school websites around the country shows that, so far, it is business as usual. The entire world may have stopped in its tracks but, in early September, after possibly months out of school, thousands of 10-year-olds look set to sit this series of tests to determine their secondary-school future.

Ilesh Kotecha, the founder and director of Eleven Plus Exams, a tutoring and resources centre that provides information and advice nationally, says it is very unlikely the 11-plus will be cancelled. Instead, he says, headteachers are being tentatively told to prepare to reopen their schools between four and eight weeks from now.

The decision to go ahead looks increasingly ill-judged as the lockdown extends, particularly given the well-established statistics on the low numbers of disadvantaged children accessing grammar schools in a normal year, and emerging evidence of the rapid widening of the educational gap as a result of coronavirus.

Recent surveys from Teacher Tapp, Public First and the Sutton Trust confirm that while children at independent schools are receiving significantly more online lessons, only 33% of those from low-income homes spend more than four hours a day learning at home. And some headteachers have said that in their school, up to 40% of pupils do not have a home computer. Many have no internet or phone either.

Tracy Thomas, headteacher of Marden primary school in Kent, the largest remaining grammar-school area in the country, says: “I fear that the gap this year [in terms of 11-plus admissions] will be greater than ever.”

Kathryn Evans, an assistant head and year 6 teacher in Maidstone, Kent, points to an early feature of the lockdown in grammar-school areas. “State primary schools are not allowed to prepare children for the test. Even so, around this time, we would be alerting parents to the fact that the test was coming up and would be there to answer any of their questions.” Instead, she and her colleagues are “trying to get in touch with vulnerable families, and keep some sort of education going”.

Grammar schools offer ‘pitifully few’ places to poorer children

Zoe Catania is a co-founder of Aim, a small charity that helps prepare children from low-income homes for the Kent test. She says the crisis will have a “massive impact”. “Even the brightest children need familiarisation with parts of the test, particularly verbal and non-verbal reasoning.”

Meanwhile, Kotecha says children who attend state schools will be disadvantaged unless their parents can provide teaching and practice during the lockdown. He says independent prep schools are “teaching a full timetable, expecting the child to begin online at 8.30 or 9am at the latest and work until 3.30pm to justify the fees. State school children don’t get this online service, because often their schools struggle for a budget just for the basics.

“During this lockdown if a child is not getting practice at home, then they will not be as mentally agile when it comes to the actual exam as those who are kept on their toes and close to their peak performance.’

But even families getting tutoring for free face additional problems. “Printers,” says Catania. “It’s striking the number of people who haven’t got printers or who can’t afford a printer cartridge. That’s not just families on pupil premium. It goes far beyond that.”

In a normal year, Aim offers three hours’ free tutoring a week, additional activities, and runs a mock exam at a local test site in the spring. This year they are sending the mock test via computer. All entrants will sit the test, at the same time, in as near to exam conditions as they can. If parents are not able to print what might be up to 40 sheets of paper, Aim will deliver them by hand.

Maria Hughes (not her real name), a single parent on universal credit, is preparing her year 5 daughter, with the help of Aim, for the Kent test. She counts herself lucky because she has “a dining room table, a school laptop which I share with my two children, and an elderly relative locally who has a printer.

Grammar school expansion still locking out the poor

“I have to hold my phone by my relative’s window so the bluetooth from my phone connects to the printer,” she says. Her relative then hands her the printed pages through the window. It sounds complicated, but Hughes considers herself lucky: “If I didn’t have that, the whole thing would be a nightmare.”

But the obstacles go well beyond tech, says Catania. “Lots of children haven’t got space to sit quietly. Parents are out working, or they can’t help. Then there’s the impact for some children of missing out on tricky bits of the curriculum, like algebra.”

It is hard to see how the government, or grammar schools themselves, can ignore the glaring unfairness of this year’s exam. In recent years, the government has made cash for grammar school expansion contingent on increasing the numbers of disadvantaged pupils, though this has, in effect, been minimal.

What are the options? Unlike every other public exam, the 11-plus cannot easily be replaced by assessment. Talking to teachers in selective areas, none wants to have to pick out the “clever children” in their year 6 class, with the resulting bad feeling between themselves and local families. And, as one parent, Maria Hughes, says, “Assessment would be very difficult when you compare children from private prep versus primary schools.”

Abandoning the test is not feasible either. Selective areas are structured around the creation of a rigid divide at 11.

Early indications are that selective schools and areas are searching for a face-saving solution, perhaps tweaking their admissions to allow in more children from lower-income families.

Anita Cranmer, Buckinghamshire council’s cabinet member for education, says: “We recognise the impact the [coronavirus] disruption will have on children due to sit the secondary transfer test.” The council is liaising with the Buckinghamshire Grammar Schools Group (TBGS), which owns and manages the test for Buckinghamshire, and with the test supplier, GL Assessment, “to find a solution … and we are also in ongoing discussions with the Department for Education”.

The only other option is postponement, possibly until January. But Hughes is sceptical: “If the schools go back before September, keep it the same. If they don’t go back until September, then defer until the new year. But my daughter just wants it over and done with.”

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Make it compulsory for vulnerable children to go to school, No 10 urged

The government has been urged to consider making it compulsory for vulnerable children to go to school during the Covid-19 lockdown, as it emerged that teachers were making hundreds of phone calls a week to keep track of at-risk pupils.

The children’s minister, Vicky Ford, faced a barrage of questions from MPs on the education select committee on Wednesday after official government statistics revealed that just 5% of vulnerable children who were entitled to a place in the emergency schools still open during the coronavirus crisis were turning up.

Tom Hunt, Conservative MP for Ipswich, questioned whether it should be left to parents to decide whether or not their children attend school. “It could be the case that sometimes these parents are part of the reason why the child is vulnerable,” he said.

“It does seem as though the government needs to take stock of this and potentially consider making it a requirement that all vulnerable children should be at school.”

The schools open during lockdown: ‘for some kids, it’s the only safe place’

While many teachers are worried about low attendance, others say the word vulnerable covers a wide range of circumstances. According to the government definition, it includes children with a social worker or an educational, health and care plan for those with special educational needs.

“I am frustrated with this notion of the headlines that suggest that they must all be in school,” said Caroline Barlow, head of Heathfield community college in East Sussex. “Not all vulnerable students are vulnerable because of their immediate family and many are better at home right now.”

Other school leaders said attendance may be low because the message to vulnerable families is confused – on the one hand they are urged to stay at home in order to be safe, while on the other they are being encouraged to send their children to school.

“It’s a concern that there are low numbers,” said Rachael Warwick, executive headteacher of the Ridgeway education trust in south Oxfordshire where just a handful of vulnerable pupils have been attending school. “But the public health message has been so strong.”

Education was never the sole focus of schools. The coronavirus pandemic has proved it

Alison Finley, safeguarding lead and assistant principal at Crawshaw academy, a secondary school with 1,000 pupils in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, bought 20 cheap mobile phones for her team just before lockdown. Since then she and colleagues have made 1,500 phone calls to vulnerable families and 58 home visits.

“The majority said they did not want to come in to school. Some of them said they felt they could look after [their children] better at home. They said it was too dangerous for them to come in to school and their children were too worried.”

With 10 or fewer vulnerable pupils in school, staff are making regular phone calls home. The highest-risk families are called daily, those that are of concern but are lower risk are called three times a week, while others are contacted once a week.

Where concerns are raised, staff pay a home visit. “Ultimately you have to go out and find them. So far we’ve made contact with every single student,” said Finley, who said there had been an increase in domestic violence and mental health problems in families.

Stuart Lock, the head of Advantage Schools trust in Bedford, which runs a primary and secondary school, said the key issue was the safety of pupils, whether they were staying at home or coming to school.

“We know for a small minority of pupils, they find their home circumstances difficult. When we set work online, we get pupils to check in with an online form every day by 9.30am. This invites them to tell us whether they and everyone in their family are safe and well and we can chase up if they say they are not.

“We also have a very small number of pupils who we have in school because it supports their families and they are particularly struggling – but this doesn’t apply to the majority of pupils who we might consider vulnerable. Our pastoral staff in each school also make telephone contact with pupils and families where we know we have had concerns in the past.”

Addressing MPs’ concerns, Ford said: “People are very concerned that they don’t want to get coronavirus and I can absolutely understand that.

“We make it very clear that children who have a social worker are expected to attend school. And if they are not, their schools are working with their social workers to make sure we have eyes on them, that they get visits – whether or not that’s a physical visit, a doorstep visit, a house visit, or a digital visit – depending on the risk to that child.

“Just because the attendance at school may be low that doesn’t mean that those children are not being safeguarded in other ways.”

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Norman Sofier obituary

My father, Norman Sofier, who has died aged 89, was a history teacher who spent his entire career at the same school in Hertfordshire.

Norman was born in the East End of London as the only child of two eastern European Jewish refugees, Ann (nee Podolsky), a PA to a bank chairman, and her husband, Hyman Sofier, who ran a barber shop. When Norman was young the family moved to Cambridge, and it was there that his parents took in a child of his own age, Zvi, who had been sent to Britain on the Kindertransport just before the second world war.

After attending the Perse school in Cambridge, Norman studied history at Downing College, Cambridge, before becoming an employment manager at the Vauxhall car factory in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. In 1968, in his spare time, he created the historical board game Saga, and left Vauxhall to sell the game in outlets such as WH Smith and Hamleys. Later, in 1979, a book of 24 board games he invented was published under the title Cops and Robbers.

In 1972 Norman took up a job as a history teacher at Nicholas Breakspear Catholic school in St Albans, Hertfordshire, where he was also a careers teacher and where he remained until his retirement in 1995. He was held in high esteem there as a wise and kind colleague in the staff room, and throughout his life was joyfully greeted by former students.

Judaism was central to Norman’s life, and it informed the thoughtful way he lived. A Samaritans volunteer, he was very involved in interfaith relations, and enjoyed for many years being co-chair of the Radlett branch of the Council of Christians and Jews. He was also co-chair of the local Jewish Historical Society.

A keen follower of rugby union, Norman was widely read and keenly interested in politics. In retirement he and his wife, Nena (nee Levy), a primary school teacher whom he married in 1962, relished entertaining, rural walking, travel and concerts.

Particularly noted for his affinity with children of all ages, he had a fund of sweet stories and gentle jokes that he passed down the generations.

He is survived by Nena, his children Jon, me and Ben, and a granddaughter, Miriam.

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