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Early years settings in England are to reopen in June in Government's lockdown exit plan

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Early years settings, childminders and schools will be able to open to more children from 1 June, the Government has confirmed in a 50-page coronavirus recovery document.

The exit strategy document sets out three different stages for the UK to emerge from the coronavirus lockdown.

The Government wants children of key workers and those who are vulnerable to go back to school at once.

It is also amending its guidance to clarify that 'paid childcare', for example nannies, can restart work from Wednesday (13 May), with other early years settings expected to open to more children from 1 June.

The document stated that childminders were also in the same category as nannies, but it appears that this was an error and childminders are to open in June as with nurseries.

The Department for Education is also expected to publish more detailed guidance for early years settings, schools and colleges.

In a statement in the House of Commons this afternoon, prime minister Boris Johnson said that the Government wants ‘to return children to early years settings, including primary schools, giving priority to the youngest children in Reception and Year 1, and Year 6’ from 1 June, with the aim ‘for all primary school pupils to return for at least one month’ before the summer holidays.

Responding, the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer asked for clarification on a number of points, including whether parents with childcare responsibilities should go back to work on Wednesday.

The prime minister replied, ‘We will count on employers to be reasonable’ and that people without childcare would not be expected to go to work.

Anyone who cannot work from home should return this week and the Government will publish guidance for businesses on how to make workplaces ‘Covid-secure’. People should avoid public transport and drive, walk or cycle, the prime minister said.

Mr Johnson also said that people should now also wear face-coverings in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not possible - ‘but not medical ones, which should be reserved for those that need them’ - for example on transport and in some shops. Children under two should not wear face-coverings.

The guidance states in more detail that, 'Face-coverings should not be used by children under the age of two, or those who may find it difficult to manage them correctly, for example primary age children unassisted, or those with respiratory conditions. It is important to use face-coverings properly and wash your hands before putting them on and taking them off.

The document states, ‘The rate of infection remains too high to allow the reopening of schools for all pupils yet. However, it is important that vulnerable children (including children in need, those with an Education, Health and Care plan and those assessed as otherwise vulnerable by educational providers or local authorities) and the children of critical workers are able to attend school, as is currently permitted.'

Approximately 2 per cent of children are attending school in person, although all schools are working hard to deliver lessons remotely, it says.

It adds, 'But there is a large societal benefit from vulnerable children, or the children of critical workers, attending school: local authorities and schools should therefore urge more children who would benefit from attending in person to do so.

The Government is also amending its guidance to clarify that paid childcare, for example nannies, can take place subject to being able to meet the public health principles at Annex A, because these are roles where working from home is not possible. This should enable more working parents to return to work.'

(The principles listed in Annex A include regular hand washing, washing clothes regularly, and reducing the number of people you spend time with in a work environment.)

The Government's current aim is that Step Two in the easing of the lockdown will be made no earlier than Monday 1 June. At this stage the document says, ‘The Government expects children to be able to return to early years settings, and for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to be back in school in smaller sizes, from this point. This aims to ensure that the youngest children, and those preparing for the transition to secondary school, have maximum time with their teachers.

Secondary schools and further education colleges should also prepare to begin some face to face contact with Year 10 and 12 pupils who have key exams next year, in support of their continued remote, home learning. The government’s ambition is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month if feasible, though this will be kept under review.

‘The Department of Education will engage closely with schools and early years providers to develop further detail and guidance on how schools should facilitate this.’

'Urgent need for more detail'

The initial reaction from the sector was mixed.

Commenting on the Government's 50-page roadmap to lifting lockdown, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders need a clear plan of action on how they are going to be supported, both practically and financially, to re-open as lockdown eases.

‘While the roadmap states that the Government expects some children to be able to return to early years settings from 1 June, the sector urgently needs more detail on exactly how this is expected to work in practice,' Mr Leitch said.

‘Early years providers are going to face significant changes to the way they operate on a day-to-day basis, including a likely reduction in the demand for childcare places as some parents opt to keep their children home rather than returning to their settings. As such, Government urgently needs to outline what steps it is planning to take to ensure that providers are able to remain financially sustainable during this period, as well as how it will ensure that both practitioners and the families they care for can best be kept safe.

‘While we understand the Government's desire to outline its plans sooner rather than later, publishing the vague outline of a strategy before any detailed guidance is available for childcare providers is unhelpful and liable to create concern and confusion for a sector already under substantial pressure.’

However, June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) which operates 39 nurseries across London, said, ‘We are delighted to learn that the early years sector, which has been operating during this current COVID-19 crisis as the 4th Emergency Service for key workers, will be reopening in June.

‘A detailed plan of action has already been presented to ministers which will allow operators to “stay alert” whilst keeping both children and workers safe. Furthermore, and where possible, outdoor learning could offer a template for socially distanced early years and embrace the benefits of education in the outdoors whereby you don't need so many toys, which means fewer surfaces where the virus can be passed on.

‘Throughout the lockdown, we have been canvassing parents who continue to attend nursery about what worked well and what made them feel safe and happy to bring their children to the nurseries. We have incorporated their views into our wider operations plan.’

 Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, said, ‘A rushed and chaotic reopening of schools will do more harm than good and could well be dangerous. ‘Children, parents and staff are worried by the Government's cavalier attitude. They all need to be confident their safety is at the top of the government's list.

‘Valid questions have gone unanswered as schools are pushed to reopen, regardless of whether it's safe to do so.    ‘Ministers must pause their plans and work together with unions to create safe schools.’ 

Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, Labour's shadow education secretary, commenting on the guidance in relation to schools re-opening, said, 'In the absence of clear scientific advice and a safety plan, the Government has not demonstrated it is in a position to start planning for the wider safe opening of schools, or given any reassurance to parents, teachers and pupils that they will be safe.

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