May Bedford Independent Column: Government is losing public confidence over return to schools

On 10 May the Prime Minister announced that Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 would be the first to return to school on 1 June.

Teachers’ unions, backed by the British Medical Association, have since expressed concern about the safety of classrooms and believe the Government is trying to shift the responsibility for safety in schools and community health, during a health pandemic, onto individual headteachers without a safe national framework.

Parents in Bedford and Kempston now face the agonising choice between the obvious benefits of their child returning to the school structure and environment versus the unknown risks of compromising the lock-down when the infection rate is still not under control.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are still observing the lockdown and a handful of councils across England have instructed schools not to open more widely, for fear of the virus spreading again.

This is a novel virus, so scientists are divided on the risks to children. Some studies show pupils are less likely to become ill if infected and their ability to transfer the virus is low, while others show they are as infectious as adults, even if asymptomatic.

The Department for Education’s Chief Scientific Adviser admitted the Government’s plan could risk spreading coronavirus since there is a “low degree of confidence” that children transmit the virus less than adults.

Speaking to Andrew Marr on Sunday, Michael Gove could not guarantee that teachers and pupils would not catch coronavirus. But when I asked the Secretary of Health if he could reassure parents and teachers it was safe for young children, unable to socially distance, to return to school he maintained that parents can be “confident that school is a safe environment for them.”

The Government is losing public confidence just when it’s most needed to persuade anxious parents to send their children to school; it’s been eroded by endless contradictory advice and slippery pledges made to fill front pages for a day, that are exposed as untrue soon afterwards.

When there are differences of opinion between scientists on what counts as safe, only honesty about what is uncertain earns political trust. But too often now, this Government’s bold pledges, including those on testing, PPE and their myth that they had “put a safety ring around care homes”, have been exposed as falsehoods. The horrific death toll tells the real story.

Now we learn that the tracing app, integral to the testing, tracing and isolation strategy and so vital in preventing a second surge, will not be rolled out before children in England return to school.

In a few weeks’ time, the picture may look quite different. We are all coming to terms with moving forward to live with a different level of risk until a vaccine can be found. Bedford Borough have committed to opening schools when it is safe to do so. But the Government must address teachers’ concerns, and put in place the plans to test, trace and isolate before teachers and parents can be confident that sending children back to school won’t trigger a second deadly peak.

Please note I have reinstated surgeries, which will take place virtually until further notice. I will be holding appointments for Zoom meetings from 3-5 on Fridays. 

Campaign success as Heart MAT restructure suspended

I’m delighted that the Heart MAT restructure – which I know has caused so much concern – has been suspended while the Department for Education is brought in to mediate.

The campaigners have been absolutely amazing, and this is an immense achievement. I’m so happy to have been able to lend my support to so many determined and passionate people.

This is just the first step – the pressure must be maintained and I’ll do all I can to support the aims of the campaigners going forward.

Academy trusts fall outside the remit of local government and fall directly under the Department of Education. I have repeatedly raised issues with the lack of accountability of academy trusts. Now here in Bedford, we are seeing just how wrong things could go because of this lack of accountability.

The Shadow Education Secretary Angela Raynor announced recently that Labour would halt the academies programme and give control back to local councils to run schools where there has been a failure by Academy Trusts. The residents of Bedford are being let down by this governments mismanaged education agenda, and I am delighted to see them fighting back.

Local communities should be able to have their say over local services. The next Labour government will give power back to communities so that our schools are run by the people who know them best – parents, teachers and local communities.

The Trust need to ditch these plans for good, recognise the achievements of these schools and build on the incredible community spirit that we’ve seen in this campaign.

Call for British Sign Language GCSE

I support the recent campaign for there to be a GCSE in British Sign Language (BSL), which has been brought to my attention by Bedford and Kempston constituents.

British Sign Language is a vital method of communication for many people and the first or preferred language for an estimated 70,000 deaf people in the UK. Many people choose to learn BSL in order to communicate more effectively with hearing-impaired people.

National Deaf Children’s Society research found that 97% of children think that BSL should be taught in schools and 92% believe it should be offered as a GCSE or equivalent. I know that the Society has raised the issue of deaf children growing up isolated and lonely. I believe that it is vital that we do what we can to ensure that deaf children are not isolated. The more we see people communicating by signing, the more we will take that as given, and as the right thing to do.

BSL was recognised by the UK government as an official minority language in 2003. Fifteen years later it is time to take the next steps to equality for users of BSL. It should be given full legal status. More widely, we need to deliver a strategy for children based on inclusivity, firmly embedding Special Educational Needs and Disabilities into training for teachers and non-teaching staff, so that staff, children and their parents are properly supported.

The Government has stated that it has no plans at present to introduce any further GCSEs beyond those to which it has already committed. I will continue to press at every opportunity for BSL to be made a fully recognised language and for it to be offered as a GCSE option.