Prime minister is risking basic right to an education, says children’s tsar

Boris Johnson was accused of putting children’s basic right to education at risk last night, as he faced a mounting chorus of pleas to unveil an unprecedented emergency programme for England’s pupils.

With growing frustration among teachers, MPs and unions over the chaotic return of schools, Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, warned there was a “very dangerous” threat to the historic right to guaranteed education.

She warned that next year’s academic year could be seriously hit, and that reduced access to education was being allowed to become “the default” in some schools. The right to education is enshrined in the UN’s convention on the rights of the child.

“It has taken 200 years of campaigning to get children out of the workplace and into the classroom, ensuring that education was a basic right for all children,” she told the Observer. “We seem for the first time to be prepared to let that start to go into reverse. And I think that is a very, very dangerous place to be.

“We heard from the prime minister back in April that education was one of the top three priorities for easing lockdown, but it seems to have been given up on quite easily.”

It comes with the prime minister under pressure from within his own party to unveil an education plan on the scale of the construction of the new Nightingale hospitals or the furlough scheme for workers, amid dire predictions about the educational divide caused by the coronavirus measures. Approval of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is down 4 points to a new low, according to the latest Opinium poll for the Observer. Only three in 10 people approve, giving the government an overall approval rate of -18 for its handling of the pandemic. However, Johnson’s personal ratings have stabilised after recent falls and the Tory lead increased slightly to 5 points. The news come as:

A further 181 deaths were announced from the virus across the UK, bringing the total death toll to 41,662.

Some of Johnson’s advisers and MPs called for a new financial package to ensure those asked to self-isolate would be able to do so, while calls grow in his party to reduce the two metre social-distancing rule by 4 July.

Most people (53%) support an independent public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, according to a YouGov poll for the March for Change campaign group.

Robert Halfon, the Tory chair of the education select committee, has now written to the prime minister asking for a “catch-up premium” and a summer tutoring programme, costing £560m per subject, for every pupil receiving free school meals.

In a letter seen by the Observer, he warned the “life chances of thousands of children” were at risk without action. “We could create a national education army of volunteers,” he writes. He also backed a big expansion of televised teaching.

Meanwhile, Labour MPs will this week present a bill calling for 1.3 million poorer children to be given internet access and a laptop to help tackle the attainment gap. The Observer last week revealed that the majority of headteachers had yet to receive a single laptop, promised by the education secretary Gavin Williamson, for disadvantaged year 10 pupils.

Johnson announced his plans for a “massive catch-up operation” for children in England last week, with details expected within days. However, it came after frustration that ministers were forced to abandon plans to reopen primary schools for all pupils before the summer. More children, including some secondary pupils, are due to return from Mondaytomorrow in England. More primary year groups will also be allowed back, if schools can accommodate them.

Downing Street is understood to be working on a long-term programme to boost education over the next couple of years, but a decision to keep schools closed over the summer remains in place. Ministers are still planning for the full return of schools in September. “The PM is acutely aware that school closures will have a disproportionate impact on all children, and particularly the most disadvantaged and vulnerable,” said a No 10 source. “He appreciates the consequences of months out of school, and this package will be focused on providing extended support for children.”

However, Longfield said: “It might be the whole of the next school year where kids aren’t going to be able to come into the classroom in normal numbers. Maybe we need to look at enhancing the classroom space, getting more teachers, or more people in to teach.

“You have to come up with the level of intervention, such as the Nightingale hospitals, such as the job retention schemes, which were amazing in their own right. There’s no reason why we can’t do that for children.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said a full return in September was impossible unless the maximum class sizes were increased: “It’s hard to see that from September you can have business as usual, whatever the stated ambition.”

Johnson has given little detail about the summer catch-up plans, but it is widely believed they include summer camps and a national online tutoring service, versions of which are being piloted. Teachers, however, are sceptical. Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASWT teachers’ union said: “The education of children has been seriously disrupted and will continue to be disrupted next year so the idea that they can catch up in six weeks is not logical.”

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