December 8, 2021

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Lesson in chaos as Tories accused of ‘abandoning Britain’s children’ amid record absences

More than a million pupils missed class last week as the pingdemic gripping the nation sparked chaos in schools.

The figure is expected to rise this week. Boris Johnson was accused of “abandoning kids” amid fears the autumn term will also be hit unless he tackles the crisis.

One union said: “Doing nothing and hoping for the best next term risks making things worse.”

Mr Johnson was tonight accused of standing by and ­watching as a further Covid crisis threatens to engulf education.

More than a million pupils missed class last week due to infections or isolation, figures show.

The record number is expected to be even higher this week as the pinging mayhem hammers schools.

Ministers face urgent calls to avoid another wave of disruption when classes in England restart in September.

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But No10 admitted it could not guarantee they would resume properly next term without more pupils being sent home to isolate.

Labour accused the Tories of “washing their hands” of responsibility towards children.

And NAHT union general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “Simply doing nothing and hoping for the best next term not only fails to address the problem, it risks making things worse.”

Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton added: “These figures bring a year of educational disruption to a grim end. Schools and colleges face another set of challenges when students return.

“They need substantial financial and practical support for on-site testing, high-quality air ­ventilation and robust outbreak management plans.”

Boris Johnson has been accussed of ‘washing his hands’ of responsibility towards children

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National Education Union joint general ­secretary Kevin Courtney warned the Government it “must look all the harder” at preventing the spread of the virus in schools from September.

Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said: “The Conservatives have abandoned the nation’s children, with no action taken to turn the tide on rising cases in schools.

“Parents and schools have been crying out for help but they have washed their hands of their responsibility to keep children learning.”

The absence rate from schools hit 14.3% last week – a record high since pupils returned in March. That was up from 11.2% on July 8 and 8.5% on July 1.

Quiet class at school in North London
Quiet class at school in North London

It includes 934,000 children isolating due to a possible contact, 47,200 pupils with a confirmed Covid case, and 34,500 with a suspected one.

And 34,800 pupils were off as a result of closures due to Covid, the Department for Education said.

Heads have been sending whole year groups home and some schools have closed early for the summer break.

Many parents are opting not to send children in for the final week of term to avoid the risk of quarantine ruining their summer holidays.

Teens sit exam at Park Lane Academy in Halifax
Teens sit exam at Park Lane Academy in Halifax

Downing Street said it “hoped and indeed expected” parents would continue sending their kids to school.

A DfE spokesman said: “Our priority is for schools and colleges to deliver face-to-face, high-quality education to all, as we know being out of education causes significant harm to educational ­attainment, life chances, mental and physical health.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has already said class “bubbles” can be scrapped but left it up to individual schools to decide whether to keep them.

The absence figures come as thousands of revellers flocked to clubs on “Freedom Day”. Huge crowds of mostly maskless people queued outside ­Birmingham’s Rosies and PRYZM venues on Monday.

The heat and rising Covid cases did nothing to put off party-goers across the land from hitting clubs, for the first time in 16 months.

‘I can’t see how this can last much longer’

As parents across the country despair at their children’s school bubbles collapsing – and more than a million kids are forced to isolate – mum-of-three Kirstie Whittingham shares her fury and frustration at a system that simply isn’t working.

Kirstie, a 35-year-old call centre operator, 35, from Halifax has Ellie (11) and Ramzy (8) – she’s also got a 16-year-old son.

“My 11-year-old daughter takes most things in her stride – but being told she can’t attend her last ever week of primary school is really getting her down.

Ellie was instructed on Sunday night that she – like more than a million other children across the country – would have to self-isolate for 10 days because she’d come into contact with a positive Covid case last Friday afternoon. Ellie had actually taken a test that day as she was going to her class sleepover, but despite that coming back negative – and every test since then not showing any signs of infection – she must stay home for another week.

Mum-of-three Kirstie Whittingham shares her frustration
Mum-of-three Kirstie Whittingham shares her frustration

Instead of making memories with her friends, saying goodbye to her school and taking part in all the fun end-of-year events – her class had planned a massive water fight on the field because of the weather – she’s got to stay in. Her school have even had to set them homework to do while they’re off, although the teachers can’t expect much to get done in the last week of term.

When I think of how Boris Johnson tried to wriggle out of his own self-isolation by claiming he and Rushi Sunak were part of a pilot scheme, it makes me furious. What a joke, it just made me think… what’s the point anymore? It wasn’t like they’d announced this scheme three weeks ago, he literally just chose it on the day, then U-turned on it. Why don’t our children have that option?

I’m really frustrated that this bubble system is still in place 16 months on, and that somebody high up hasn’t once thought ‘we can’t keep sending 30 children home’. If we took that stance with normal illnesses children would never be in school! If we’ve got to learn to live with it, we’ve got to live with it.

Ellie (11) and Ramzy (8) are finding the situation hard
Ellie (11) and Ramzy (8) are finding the situation hard

When you look back over the last 16 months of chaos and disruption to kids’ education, I don’t know how we’re ever going to catch them up to speed.

It’s going to either be a miracle and make us overhaul the whole education system properly, like it needs, or they’re going to end up so far behind that the same parameters for measuring learning won’t count anymore.

Ellie’s little brother Ramzy, is also isolating this week after his Year 3 class came into contact with a positive case. Both of them are active dancers and were meant to be starting dance summer camp on Monday, now they’ll have to miss it despite neither of them having Covid.

They’ve got a vocabulary now that no child should have. A bubble is no longer the thing you blow from washing up liquid, it means something much more sinister now. Ellie is a clever girl and asks intelligent questions, but she just wants her life back. They all do.

We had to cancel three family holidays last year, including one to Butlins where they were meant to be dancing with Diversity. Ramzy always says he’s got the same hair as Perri Kiely so he was really excited about going, but that had to be scrapped in the end. They get to an age where holidays like that aren’t fun for them anymore so you don’t do it. Now that ship has sailed.

I heard about the Covid vaccine being rolled out to children aged 12 and over but in all honesty I don’t think I’ll let my kids get it until there’s more research done on it. I’m double-jabbed and I’m 35 so it’s fine for me, but until there’s been a bit more time spent looking at the side effects, I’m swinging towards no.

As a call centre operator I’m able to work with Ellie at home fairly easily, but my heart goes out to parents in my position who don’t have childcare options. I can’t see how this can last much longer. “