Prime Minister accuses Sir Keir Starmer of 'wibble-wobble' over schools returning

17 June 2020, 14:03

By Megan White

The Prime Minister has accused Sir Keir Starmer of "wibble-wobble" after he repeatedly challenged the Labour leader to say it was safe for children to return to schools.

Boris Johnson and the Labour leader clashed over the return of children to schools, with the PM suggesting the Opposition and trade unions were hampering efforts to reopen.

The pair were discussing a rise in child poverty when Mr Johnson said one of the best ways to help the poorest children in the country "would be to encourage all kids who can go back to school to go back to school now, because their schools are safe".

The Labour leader repeatedly refused to say if he believes it is safe for children to return to school.

Challenging Sir Keir, the PM said: "The kids that can go to school should go to school and wouldn't it be a fine thing if we heard from all sides of the House that schools are safe to go to, rather than the wibble-wobble that we've heard from the Opposition?"

After PMQs, Sir Keir Starmer's spokesman was more frank in rebuffing Boris Johnson's questioning.

The Labour leader's spokesman said: "Ultimately it was Gavin Williamson who said on June 9 we're not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer.

"That was a Government U-turn, that was a Government failure and this is a Government with the majority of 80, it should be taking the responsibility for its own failures."

It came after the Prime Minister was forced into a U-turn over providing free school meal vouchers to eligible pupils over the summer holidays following a campaign by England footballer Marcus Rashford.

Their clash came after union leaders were accused of causing "sheer damage" to the teaching profession by portraying schools as "death traps" to parents through their response to reopening schools in England.

Addressing bosses of education unions, former teacher and Tory MP Jonathan Gullis said their actions in warning against rushing to open schools more widely were "utterly disgraceful".

It came after Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said schools would not be able to fully reopen in September if social distancing rules remain in place.

Speaking at a virtual Education Select Committee, Mr Gullis, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, asked: "Why is it that every time I see a teaching union on TV they're saying 'schools aren't safe to open, schools aren't safe to open'?

"A campaign has been run, whether you like or not, to breathe fear into parents about the idea of sending their kids back to school. It has come across to parents that these schools are death traps and that is just not the case and there are thousands of children not getting an education."

Tom Hunt, Tory MP for Ipswich, added: "The perception that many people have in this country, whether rightly or wrongly, and it is a reality, sadly, that many people feel as though some of the teaching unions have actively obstructed the reopening of schools ahead of September."

Addressing education unions, Robert Halfon, chairman of the committee, added: "Why is it that children and parents can have access to Primark over the next few months, but many of them won't have access to schools according to your risk assessments?"

Union leaders told MPs that they wanted children back in school as soon as possible, but they raised concerns about schools leaders' ability to do so in the autumn term under the current social distancing rules.

Addressing the committee, Dr Bousted said: "The problem we have in England in particular is that we have some of the highest pupil-teacher ratios.

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"We've got more pupils in classes and the footprint on the classes is smaller so if you're going to continue with social distancing, it puts the pressure on the school site to be very great."

When asked whether schools will be able to open fully in September under current restrictions, Dr Bousted told MPs: "If the Government retains its social distancing rules then they can't.

"So that's why we then need to look at an education recovery plan, which is focused on more than school buildings."

On reopening more widely in the autumn, Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "If it is at all possible and considered safe then absolutely we want all children to be back in school from September.

"But we're not able to do that at the moment within the Government's own protective measures guidance. The maths just doesn't work.

"If you can only have up to 15 children in a class and you're bringing back all children, you need twice as many classrooms and you need twice as many teachers."

Ms McCulloch added that the best outcome - if the science says that this is safe and appropriate - would be to have all children back with "some of those measures relaxed" in September.