Statement on schools from H&F Leader Cllr Stephen Cowan

There has been much debate about schools nationally and locally over the last few days.

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Rainbow art created by pupils at Brackenbury Primary School in Dalling Road during the Covid-19 pandemic

On Sunday 10 May, the Prime Minister announced that some pupils who have been at home during the crisis should shortly begin to return to school. The government has asked that this process starts from Monday 1 June. This is an extremely difficult decision for parents, guardians and teachers throughout our borough to make.

The British Medical Association has released this statement offering some advice. It includes the sentences, “Parents up and down the UK are asking the same question: is it safe? The simple answer is, we do not yet know. Our neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have adopted a more cautious approach.”

This council’s priority has been the safety and wellbeing of all our citizens throughout this unprecedented crisis. That’s why on 13 March, we were amongst the first local authorities to move onto an emergency footing so we could maintain critical services and develop new services to help our residents cope.

It should not be forgotten that our schools have remained open, including over the Easter holiday, for children of key workers and other children who could not stay home throughout the lockdown. They have not only played a crucial role in keeping key workers on the front line, but they have continued to provide the nurture and support that they are famous for, whether its through providing free school meals and vouchers to those that need it, or being a reassuring presence during anxious times.

And, teachers and businesses have worked with us to develop new online teaching strategies and distance learning support which we’re using now and preparing for later in case a second wave of the pandemic hits us again.

The question isn’t when should children and young people return to school? It’s, how do we make it safe for everyone as larger numbers of children and young people return to school?

Hammersmith & Fulham is a proudly diverse borough with families living in many different housing, economic, and social circumstances. There are multi-generational families and families living in overcrowded conditions where it’s simply not possible to self-isolate or even practise safe social distancing.

We believe school governors and Headteachers, who have dedicated their careers to keeping our children and young people safe, are best placed to make that decision. They are the ones who know the unique circumstances and context of their schools and they should make the decision according to that local context. We will support whatever decision they make.

Improving the life chances of our children through the best possible education is paramount for us. We want our young people to live the fullest, happiest lives and achieve the best possible things. That ambition lies at the heart of our education system and the work we are doing through our Industrial Strategy to make this borough a global economic hotspot in STEM industries and digital media – bringing our children the best jobs and start-up opportunities.

But this global pandemic is a huge new challenge and remains a serious threat. Schools should not be forced to accept more children back into the classrooms. They should only do so when they are confident that our children are safe, and we will work with them to overcome the challenges they face.

Our teachers and school staff need to be celebrated and supported for putting the safety of our children first. That’s something we’re proud to do in Hammersmith & Fulham.

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