Millions return to school in England, Wales and Northern Ireland today

Millions of children return to classes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland today amid fears of a similar spike in Covid cases to Scotland – as 23% of parents of secondary pupils will insist their children wear masks

  • 38% of parents will be sending their children in with masks as school starts today
  • Many headteachers are asking for face coverings – against current guidance
  • Three-quarters of secondary school children will test regularly, parents say
  • And 40% of children did not get enough online learning in past academic year 
  • Row over JCVI saying they do recommend covid jab for 12-15 year olds continues
  • Vaccines minister: ‘Decision will go in favour of what the teenager decides to do’

Millions of children are returning to school today amid fears it will cause a new spike in covid cases as headteachers and parents revealed they will ignore official guidance on masks by asking children to wear them.

The row over whether 12 to 15-year-olds should be vaccinated is also dominating the first day of term in much of the UK this morning. 

New research revealed today that two in five parents will insist their children wear masks despite them no longer being compulsory in England as it also emerged that nearly half of all state-educated children failed to get the required amount of online learning during lockdowns during the last academic year.

The current Department for Education guidance on masks says: ‘No pupil or student should be denied education on the grounds of whether they are, or are not, wearing a face covering.’

But a survey of 1,300 people by the Parent Ping app has found that 23 per cent of parents will send their children to secondary school in masks because headteachers have asked them to – while a further 15 per cent will do the same even though the school isn’t insisting on it.

And three-quarters of parents said that their children would be tested weekly – down to 20 per cent for primary school children, according to The Times.

Sir Hamid Patel, chief executive of Star Academies, which runs schools in Lancashire, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, said: ‘We are encouraging staff and pupils to wear face coverings in crowded areas or in places on site.’

Pupils at Covid test station as they entered their new secondary school for the first time at Wales High school, Sheffield

Cases have spiked in Scotland since the school start amid concerns the same could happen in England now all children are back

Children should be able to overrule their parents to get the Covid vaccine, a BMA chief has claimed.

Dr David Strain said 12 to 15-year-olds have ‘enough maturity’ to decide for themselves whether to get the jab.

The co-chair of the medical body added that rolling out doses to the age group could cut the spread of the virus in schools by 20 per cent.

Britain’s four chief medical officers are set to announce whether 12 to 15-year-olds should be offered vaccines by Friday, reports Playbook.

Last week the JCVI told the Government to seek advice from elsewhere whether children should be inoculated.

They said the virus posed such a low risk to children that the benefit to their health of immunisation would be marginal. But they did not consider societal factors such as the closure of schools sparked by the virus. 

It comes as experts fear England will see a surge in Covid infections within days as children return to school last week and this week. 

Children as young as 12 can overrule their parents if they disagree about whether to get the Covid jab, the vaccines minister said yesterday.

Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, is expected to authorise the vaccination of all 12 to 15-year-olds within days, with NHS staff being deployed in schools to administer the jabs.

Ministers have confirmed that parents’ written consent will be required before their children are given a coronavirus vaccine. But in cases where children dispute their parents’ decision, the child will have the final say.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said: ‘The NHS, in terms of the school immunisation programme, is really well practised and versed in dealing with [family disputes], whether it be the teenager not wanting the jab or the other way around.

‘What you essentially do is make sure that the clinicians discuss this with the parents and with the teenager.

‘If they are then deemed to be able to make a decision that is competent, then that decision will go in the favour of what the teenager decides to do.’

Under current law, under-16s are able to make their own decisions about medical treatment including vaccines if they can demonstrate they have the capacity to consent.

This is referred to as ‘Gillick competency’ following a legal case of the same name and is assessed by taking into account criteria such as the child’s age and understanding of the benefits and risks.

Two weeks ago the NHS and schools were instructed to make detailed preparations to vaccinate secondary schoolchildren so they could ‘hit the ground running’ when schools return. But the planned rollout descended into chaos on Friday when the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) controversially refused to back vaccinating children on medical grounds alone, insisting the benefits of jabs are marginal because children are so unlikely to get ill with Covid-19.

They instead passed the buck to Professor Whitty, who will consider ‘broader’ public health and educational reasons for immunising youngsters. He has been asked to re-evaluate the enormous disruption to education during the pandemic, to see if this tips the balance in favour of vaccination.

Year 7 pupils arrive back at Great Academy Ashton in Manchester as schools reopen after the summer holidays

There is mounting frustration within the Government at the JCVI’s slow decision-making, with Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Canada and the US all pressing ahead with jabs for children.

Ofsted chief’s after-school club plea: Teachers must make time for sports and trips to help children’s social skills that have been harmed by Covid lockdowns, watchdog head says 

Schools must make time for sports, trips and clubs or risk prolonging the ‘loss’ of social skills caused by lockdowns, the head of Ofsted urges.

Amanda Spielman suggests heads could extend the school day to bring back ‘once cherished’ activities like football, drama club and music.

As schools reopen this week, she says there are ‘rising health concerns’ about pupils who have ‘lost out’ on developing social skills and had few opportunities to ‘overcome shyness or lack of confidence’.

And while the academic catch-up effort is ‘crucial’, she says it is ‘not enough to help them recover all that they have lost’.

Her comments, in an article for the Daily Mail on this page, will hold huge sway among heads as they seek to improve their Ofsted rating. 

It comes after experts found children’s language skills and physical fitness had been seriously hampered by the lockdowns. 

The children’s minister, Vicky Ford, said some were having to learn the words ‘cake’, ‘balloon’, ‘toy’, and ‘present’ because they had not attended a party since they learned how to speak.

Mrs Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, insists there is a pressing need for schools to get back to normal. She says: ‘With extra-curricular activities halted, children have lost out on learning the soft skills such as listening to others, speaking well, and problem solving.’

And she says the ‘possibility of a longer school day’ would allow time for these skills to be developed. 

Top scientists joined education unions in expressing surprise and frustration with the JCVI’s decision. Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which advises the Government, said it was wrong of the JCVI to claim there was not enough evidence.

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘We do know the virus is circulating very widely amongst this age group, and that, if we’re going to be able to get the rates down and also prevent further surges of infection perhaps later in the winter, then this is the group that needs to become immune. And the best way to become immune is through vaccination.’

Professor Openshaw added: ‘To my mind, the public health benefit is very, very important, and we have to take the wider view that, unless we do get infection rates down amongst this particular part of the population, it will be very, very hard to prevent further large recurrences [of Covid-19].’

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said: ‘We have to take into consideration the wider effect Covid might have on children and their education and developmental achievements.’ Some parents have expressed concerns about children having the right to choose for themselves if they get the jab.

Molly Kingsley, co-founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem, said: ‘We have heard a lot of parents saying that if it happens they will keep their children off school for the duration of any vaccination programme.’

Yesterday, the UK recorded 37,011 new Covid cases and 68 deaths in the latest 24-hour period. A week ago, 33,196 cases and 61 deaths were announced.

Two in five pupils did not meet the Government’s minimum guidelines for remote learning time during school closures earlier this year, a report suggests.

Schools could face challenges as pupils return this month because a quarter of parents believe it will take their child at least a year to catch up on lost learning, an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report says.

Researchers say catch-up policies need to be targeted at poorer pupils to close ‘educational inequalities that have grown so much wider’ during the coronavirus pandemic.

Limited support and unequal provision for self-isolating students during the autumn term in 2020 – when schools were open but disrupted – also worked against efforts to address lost learning, they add.

Overall, inequalities in home-learning experiences in England improved over the course of the pandemic, according to the IFS report, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

Poorer families were more likely to be offered online classes by their schools, and to have the technology at home to access them, during the second period of school closures compared with the first lockdown.

But overall around 40% of children did not meet the Government’s expected minimum daily amount of time spent on remote learning even in the second round of school closures, according to the report which looked at survey data collected between March 2020 and March 2021.

After a year of Covid-related disruption to education, 25% of parents think their child will take at least a school year to catch up on lost learning and 7% think that their child will never catch up.

While the majority of parents support tutoring to help children, the poorest families were the least likely to accept an offer of catch-up sessions.

Among the poorest fifth of families, 36% of pupils had been offered tutoring by March 2021, but nearly a third of these chose not to take it up – by contrast, while a similar share of those in the most affluent families had been offered tutoring, only one in seven of them refused.

One in seven primary schools plan to keep class ‘bubbles’ this term amid fears over the spread of coronavirus.

They will make pupils stay within consistent groups throughout the day in a bid to halt transmission rates and potential school closures during the autumn term.

In some areas of the country, up to one in five schools are set to maintain these bubbles.

The move comes as Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, last week failed to rule out the possibility of schools being forced to shut again.

On Thursday, he said he would ‘move Heaven and Earth’ to stop schools ‘having to close’.

But Mr Williamson was unable to dismiss the possibility of this occurring if cases rocket, or the need for other Covid measures such as lessons moving outside.

Under Department for Education (DfE) guidance released in July, schools were encouraged to scrap Covid safety procedures such as bubbles, the wearing of face masks and contact tracing measures.

The DfE added that schools’ ‘outbreak management plans’ should still ‘cover the possibility that in some local areas it may become necessary to reintroduce ‘bubbles’ for a temporary period’.

The guidance stressed that any decision ‘to recommend the reintroduction of ‘bubbles’ would not be taken lightly and would need to take account of the detrimental impact they can have on the delivery of education’.

The return to school for millions of children coincided with many returning to work after the holidays, causing long queues at the Blackwall Tunnel in Greenwich today

However, many headteachers are already putting in place contingency measures, a new survey by Teacher Tapp has revealed.

The educational app surveyed 1,376 teachers for the Times Educational Supplement.

Fourteen per cent of respondents working in primaries – one in seven – said a bubble system would operate in their schools this term.

This compared with seven per cent of teachers in secondary schools.

Some regions are more cautious than others, with teaching unions pointing out this could be because they have previously experienced ‘severe disruption’.

Nineteen per cent of teachers – almost one in five – in the north-west say their school will keep bubbles this term.

In the east of England and Yorkshire and north-east, the figure is just ten per cent. In London, 13 per cent of respondents said their schools would maintain consistent groups of pupils this term.

Schools in deprived areas are also more likely to keep bubbles than those serving more affluent communities, the survey shows.

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