Finally! Back to school and work

31 August 2020, 22:00 | Updated: 1 September 2020, 17:52

Pupils wash their hands as they arrive on the first day back to school at Charles Dickens Primary School in London, as schools in England reopen to pupils following the coronavirus lockdown.
Pupils wash their hands as they arrive on the first day back to school at Charles Dickens Primary School in London, as schools in England reopen to pupils following the coronavirus lockdown. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Schools in England and Wales have finally welcomed pupils back into the classroom today as the government launches its return to the workplace campaign.

It marks the first time children have seen their teachers for the first time in more than five months.

Minister for School Standards Nick Gibb told LBC's Nick Ferrari this morning the government is looking at pushing back exams in 2021 back "by a few weeks" in England in order to get students "back on track."

However, when Nick Ferrari pushed the minister for a specific time frame, Mr Gibb could not give one.

It comes after a new survey revealed many students are three months behind on their studies after being forced to stay at home due to the ongoing pandemic.

Last month, ministers launched a campaign telling parents it will be safe to send their children back to school at the beginning of September.

The #backtoschoolsafely campaign was endorsed by Public Health England and highlighted the measures being put in place to minimise the risk of coronavirus transmission, including staggered break times, increased hygiene and hand-washing and keeping pupils in consistent groups.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said in August that the "greatest risk" facing school-age children is not Covid-19, but instead the prospect of staying out of "irreplaceable" and "invaluable" face-to-face education.

"When you've been struggling with something in the classroom, some concept that you can't get, somebody, very probably a teacher, will say something and a light will go on; the clouds will lift and you will never forget that moment," he said.

Read more: 'Very, very, very small' risk of kids catching Covid in schools, PM reassures parents

Read more: Boris Johnson warns pupils' 'life chances' will suffer if they don't go back to school

It comes as the government prepares to launch its campaign to encourage people back into their workplaces this week, while the UK is lagging "well behind" EU countries in returning to work.

Only 34% of Britain's white-collar workforce has returned to the office, according to President of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Lord Karan Bilimoria, which is roughly half the Europe-wide average of almost 70%.

Meanwhile, eight in 10 white-collar workers in France have returned to their workplaces, with Italy's number at a similar level, and seven in 10 Germans have gone back to the office.

Lord Bilimoria said: "We are well behind the curve in getting back to work."

He added: "We've got to encourage people. They've got to feel confident and safe to return to work."

Read more: 'It's safe to return to offices' Government to launch return to workplace campaign

Read more: Government has taken 'careful approach' on getting kids back to school

The CBI president said that while lockdown had provided people with the opportunity to work efficiently from home, "there are huge benefits of going back to the office, not just for the local economy".

British workers will see, hear and read television and newspaper messages from this week promoting the government's campaign to reduce the number of people working from home.

On Friday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told LBC the government message is that "it is now safe to return to work".

"Where it is possible, people can now return to work, it is safe to do so," he said.

"Your employer should have put in Covid-friendly measures to ensure that people can work safely from their offices because there are just things which are impossible to do from home over Zoom videos as we're doing now.

"Gradually now people will start to return to the office, but I suspect we'll see more flexible working than we've seen in the past and it will be for employers and employees to work out the right balance in their particular cases."

Labour has previously criticised the plans as being "unconscionable", while the CBI said any return to work push should involve a "hybrid" approach that did not force people to return.

Labour's shadow business minister Lucy Powell said: "It beggars belief that the government are threatening people like this during a pandemic. Forcing people to choose between their health and their job is unconscionable.

"Number 10 should condemn this briefing and categorically rule out any such campaign."

Last week, a government spokesperson said: "We are working closely with employers across the country to help them make workplaces Covid-secure and give people confidence to go back to work during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Next week, we will showcase the benefits of returning safely to work and raise awareness of companies getting this right.

"We'll also provide practical steps businesses are taking to ensure offices are Covid-secure as well as alternative ways of travelling to work."

Meanwhile, the government has come under pressure to ensure the reopening of schools in England goes smoothly and does not push up coronavirus cases.

Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon said he wanted the government and exam regulators to provide "absolute clarity" on the syllabuses so teachers know what to teach - as well as reassurance for parents and teachers that it is safe to return.

He also said schools should run tests to assess pupils' academic attainment, mental health and wellbeing - and send the results to the Department for Education and Ofqual to help determine when exams should take place next year.

"I'm not talking about nationwide exams - I think that's the last thing we need - but just some basic understanding of what catch up is needed... and to work out what delay is needed if (exams) need to be delayed," he said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of taking a "chaotic approach" to education as he demanded Gavin Williamson show how he will "make up for the damage already done" to pupils.

He said the Education Secretary should go to Parliament to "tell us how he will protect our children's futures".

Sir Keir added that pupils need to be "brought up to speed" and the government needs to "mitigate against the ongoing risk from the pandemic".

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