TikTok and a shoulder to cry on: why pupils in Gloucestershire wish lockdown school would never end

“We call it ‘strange school’,” says Caitlin, 15, slightly raising her voice across the the open space of the school hall where the pupils are carefully observing physical distancing. “Literally everything here is different now.”

Since lockdown, Caitlin has been coming to school five days a week, as she is among those whose schooling is considered a priority. With three younger siblings at home, she has to take on “a lot of responsibility for helping out”. Even in normal times, school is a haven for her. Over the past seven weeks it has become even more than that: an oasis of calm.

Rednock secondary is a specialist science college in the small market town of Dursley, Gloucestershire. This is not the affluent north Cotswolds of honeyed stone cottages, and the school is a typical comprehensive. Usually 1,500 students troop through its gates every morning. Today, 42 pupils are in.

At the moment there is one teacher to four students, which means pupils such as Caitlin can be given unprecedented tailored pastoral and academic support, without the usual pressures of time. “I think without school right now I’d be an emotional mess,” Caitlin says with a nervous smile. “It’s my GCSEs and I’m worried – we’re missing a massive chunk of learning. But I’ve had a teacher to help me whenever I’ve wanted. It’s given me that extra confidence.”

Here at Rednock, pupils have been encouraged to try a huge range of new creative and practical activities: knitting, Zumba, TikTok, baking, kite-making and sign language.

The school has ripped up timetables in a way no state school could normally contemplate. “We’ve said, we will be completely flexible to your needs,” says Kerala Cole, assistant headteacher. “We work in partnership with parents to personalise the deal for the students. It can be that they come in for just a couple of hours. And I think we are seeing huge benefits to that.”

One boy who had refused to attend for eight months, has been coming in every day, thanks to this flexibility and the attention he can now be given. Another year 8 child, “who arrived midway through this year and has been struggling … he’s been attending for four weeks now and he’s really benefited”, says Cole. “You can just see how his shoulders have relaxed.”

The gap in GCSE results between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and the rest is thought to be around 19 months and, without changes in policy priorities, at the current rate it will take 50 years to close, according to the Education Policy Institute thinktank.

Many fear children will fall even further behind during the pandemic, one reason the government gives for wanting to reopen schools to more pupils by 1 June. Rednock was hoping some 240 pupils would attend during lockdown, but numbers have been lower than expected.

The corridors of the school’s spacious modern building are hushed. Children walk around alone, and don’t wear uniform. For many, “strange school” has huge advantages. “Before, I had quite a few classmates who were really annoying and distracting, but now this new way, it’s quieter,” says Edie, 13.

“Teachers are ever so supportive, and it’s calmer because there’s not tonnes of people crowding around,” adds Molly, 11.

“There’s less people who intimidate other people,” says Alfie, 12, whose parents, both nurses, have been at work during the crisis. “You can be yourself more rather than be the person other people think you should be.” His mum has had Covid-19, he says, and has recovered.

Everyone nods. “Before, people used to sometimes judge you,” says Samira, 11. “You can sometimes have fake friends who really bring you down. This has given you a little bit of a break.”

Because the school is being so careful about physical distancing, I meet students in the hall, with one child per desk. This small group either have key-worker parents, are under the care of a social worker, have an education, health and care plan (EHCP) for their special needs, or are otherwise defined as “high priority” by their teachers. They miss their friends but, to a child, say they feel immense relief from the pressures of “normal” school.

“The teachers have more time to spend with you, and you get the help you need,” says Maisie, 12, whose mother works in food manufacturing. Samira agrees. “Teachers feel more like family now.” There is enthusiastic nodding from her schoolmates.

The headteacher, David Alexander, and Cole, went through their entire roll to identify pupils they felt should have the opportunity to attend – those who were vulnerable, although not in the government’s stated categories.

When the Covid-19 crisis finally ends, schools must never return to normal

“We want as many to come in as possible,” Alexander says. As schools closed across the country, Rednock staff telephoned 280 families to make sure they knew their child had a place. “Some parents and carers are hesitant,” Alexander acknowledges. “And some prefer to have their children at home.” But efforts are unstinting to support the 160 or so students who, Cole says, “we would class as vulnerable, and who we’d prefer to be in school but aren’t”.

Cole feels anxious for the welfare of some children who haven’t been seen for the past seven weeks. She is in regular contact with their social workers and, in some cases, the police. Teachers continue to check in, ringing some children weekly, some daily.

In school, staff are sensitive to new needs. “Some here have really difficult home lives and they feel safer in school. And they feel worried about their parents who are at work. We’ve had tears, shouting, aggression,” says Cole.

“Or they go quiet, or go off on their own,” adds Alexander. “Or you get over-the-top laughter, or clinginess,” says Cole.

When all students do come back, Alexander and Cole are hoping there will be lessons they can use from lockdown. They know, too, that the return of the hurley burley will affect the more vulnerable children.

And the pupils have mixed feelings about normal school resuming. Samira hopes there might be smaller classes, but says: “I’m not excited about going back – all the madness and screaming in corridors.” Molly agrees.: “It’ll probably be more stressful. Everything crowded again.”

Caitlin is looking to the positives. “I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on who I want to be when I’m older,” she says. “I can be quite negative, and this time has given me a break. The extra support from school means that I know even when things get tough – because we’re in a pandemic and I’m getting through it – I can get through other things now.”

Alexander and Cole emphasise that even in normal times this school tries to create a family atmosphere. But to these children, a caring school has never felt as much of a reality as it does now. There is no testing or targets, no pressure to achieve academically. They feel adults are there for them. And despite the immense stresses and limitations of living in a time of pandemic, they are blossoming.

* All children’s names have been changed.

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Ministers rejected school reopening plan recommended by Sage experts

A low-risk scenario where pupils in England would attend school on alternating weeks was presented to the government as the most likely way to gain popular support before ministers instead settled on their plan for a widespread reopening on 1 June, newly published papers have revealed.

The government’s plan for reopening schools to entire classes of reception, year 1 and year 6 pupils on 1 June was not among the nine scenarios modelled for Sage by the Department for Education. But one of the scientists’ preferred options of splitting classes and having pupils attend on alternate weeks, which they said had “particular potential merit”, was passed over.

The papers of scientific advice prepared for Sage and its subcommittees reveal high levels of uncertainty around different scenarios for school reopenings, and over the likelihood of transmission of the Covid-19 virus by children of different ages.

One of the most recent papers, discussing the effects of increasing school attendance on transmission, concludes: “There is substantial uncertainty, with the relative contribution of school openings being driven also by the relative susceptibility and infectivity of children of different ages compared to adults, as well as the extent to which social distancing is or is not sustained in the wider population.”

The stash of documents released by Sage and the government on Friday afternoon show the scientific advisers wrestling with questions of how easily children could transmit coronavirus, with the experts conceding that exposure outside the schoolyard was likely to be highly influential.

Collectively, the scientific advice appears to do little to assuage fears among parents and teachers over the potential risks in reopening schools to reception, year 1 and year 6 as soon as 1 June, as Boris Johnson pledged earlier this month. On Thursday the governments of both Scotland and Northern Ireland announced that schools in those countries would not return until after the summer holidays.

A modelling paper stated: “The modelling consistently suggests that resuming early-years provision has a smaller relative impact than primary school, which in turn has a smaller relative impact than resuming secondary schooling. However, this analysis does not incorporate potential for indirect impacts on contacts outside of school – which may differ by age of child.”

The modelling of infection spread – carried out by four institutions, including Public Health England – also did not account for the activities of children within schools: “It is important to understand what is going on inside of the school (eg physical distancing, hygiene measures, and more). The potential effect of such actions is not incorporated into the modelling.”

Sage looked at the modelling for nine different scenarios outlined by the Department for Education, from total closure to full reopening. But none of the published scenarios included the three year groups that the government eventually chose.

The committee that examined the modelling appeared to favour two scenarios that would have split both primary and secondary school classes and have different groups of children attend on alternate weeks, labelled scenario seven, which would have seen a low level of potential transmission according to the four results.

The recent paper on modelling continued: “Scenario 7 (alternating one/two weeks on, one/two weeks off) may be a good way to stop extensive transmission chains in schools. When this effect in schools is embedded into the wider community, the impact is less strong, but still has some value in reducing overall R.” But it added: “The modelling of Scenario 7 is the least robust of the scenarios, and further exploration is needed.”

Under “behavioural factors” the committee’s advice stated: “Scenario 7 is likely to be the most effective strategy to make school attendance normative. If steps are taken to synchronise attendance for families with multiple children, this may be the most effective at enabling parents to return to work.

“Scenario 7b, where children alternate in and out of school on a weekly basis, was perceived to be potentially preferable – both developmentally and practically – for young children and working parents.”

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The group looking at the role of children in transmission was most supportive of the reopening option involving split classes coming in on alternating weeks, across both primary and secondary schools.

“Although not initially one of the options proposed by DfE, options 7b (classes split in two, with children attending on alternate weeks) emerged from the joint discussions as having particular potential merit for further consideration,” according to one paper prepared for a meeting on 30 April, just days before Boris Johnson’s announcement on 10 May that primary schools would reopen.

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One paper prepared by Sage’s modelling and behavioural subgroups on 16 April warned that, as a result of school closures, some children would have “experienced a shock to their education which will persist and affect their educational and work outcomes for the rest of their lives”.

The experts conceded that “many children will adapt and be just fine”, with lockdown providing some families the chance to “bond more closely”, but they raised serious concerns about children who were already vulnerable, in particular those with special educational needs and disability.

A period of home learning, they added, would reinforce existing inequalities between children, while months off school would mean emerging learning difficulties were missed.

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Government under pressure to scrap plans to open schools to more pupils next month

Ministers are facing increasing pressure from council leaders and teaching unions to reconsider their plans to open primary schools in England to more pupils from next month.

Calderdale Council in West Yorkshire has joined a number of local authorities in advising its schools against reopening more widely to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils from June 1 amid safety concerns.

Solihull Council, believed to be one of the first Conservative-led local authorities to question the Government’s proposed start date, has warned that some school places may not be ready for the first week of June.

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It came as a poll from teachers’ union NASUWT suggested that only 5% of teachers think it will be safe for more pupils to return to school next month.

In a letter to the Education Secretary, Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the union remains “unconvinced” that wider reopening of schools from June 1 is “appropriate or practicable”.

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The survey, of nearly 29,000 NASUWT members across England, found that around nine in 10 teachers believe that social distancing will be impossible, or will present major issues and a similar proportion are not confident that the proposed measures will protect their health or the health of pupils.

It also found that 87% of teachers believe that PPE is essential to protect staff against the virus.

Dr Roach said: “The results of our survey underscore the fact that the Government has thus far failed to win the trust and confidence of teachers about the safety of reopening schools.

“It is now imperative that the Government takes every available opportunity to provide the necessary assurances that teachers are seeking.”

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The union leader called for all the scientific evidence from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to be made available to teachers and school as soon as possible.

It came as education unions told the PA news agency that they were due to meet Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Tuesday as part of a weekly conference on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on schools.

Last week, Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), told teachers not to attend any planning meetings about schools reopening from June 1.

In a Zoom meeting with union officers, held on Thursday, Dr Bousted said: “The timetable is reckless. The timetable is simply not safe, it is not fair, it is not feasible.”

Calderdale Council became the latest Labour-led council in the north of England to advise its schools against a wider reopening from June 1, following similar actions from Bury, Liverpool and Hartlepool.

Sefton Council will suggest schools reopen from June 15 to allow time for an “appropriate risk assessment”, the Merseyside local authority has said.

A number of local authorities in England have acknowledged safety concerns among parents and teachers over the date, but they have not urged all their schools to reject the proposed time frame.

Leaders of Birmingham City Council have sent a letter to parents and school staff saying that they will only support schools opening to more pupils “when it is safe to do so”.

The statement says: “We recognise that for some schools, opening to more pupils safely may not be possible on June 1, while parents and guardians must also feel reassured.”

It adds: “We trust that head teachers will make the right decisions for their school communities.”

Stuart Guest, head teacher at Colebourne Primary School in Birmingham, has told parents that he does not plan to open more widely on June 1 because “the risks are too great”.

In a letter to families, Mr Guest wrote: “We would still be endangering the lives of my staff and the community we serve if we rushed a wider opening.”

John Edmunds, professor of infectious disease modelling at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the decision to reopen primary schools is a political decision but he said it may be that children are less likely to transmit coronavirus to others.

He told the House of Lords science and technology committee: “Clearly the decision to open primary schools or not, is a political one, it’s not a scientific decision. Scientists can offer some advice.

“It looks like the risk to children is low, and that the vast majority don’t have significant symptoms.”

He added: “So the risk to others may be relatively low, but overall you have to weigh up those risks with other things, risks to community, clearly we can’t keep children off school forever, and so on and so forth.

“The actual decision, and weighing all of those things, needs to be done by politicians.”

On Monday, former Labour prime minister Tony Blair said Boris Johnson’s administration was right to start reopening schools as he said some children will have received “no education at all” during closures.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We want children back in schools as soon as possible because being with their teachers and friends is so important for their education and their wellbeing.

“Plans for a cautious, phased return of some year groups from June 1, at the earliest, are based on the best scientific and medical advice. The welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making.

“We have engaged closely with a range of relevant organisations, including the unions, throughout the past eight weeks, including organising for them to hear directly from the Government’s scientific advisers last Friday, and will continue to do so.”

Press Association

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The millennials changing the face of sex education in Vietnam

Tu Nguyen gave up a sought-after job in a mission to help young people in Vietnam better understand sex and sexuality.

Tu Nguyen never had a formal sex education (sex-ed) class at his school in Hanoi, nor was he trained as an educator on the subject, but he and his team have set out to change the face of sex-ed in Vietnam. 

Tu, Linh Hoang, Thu Ha and Ngoc Nguyen cofounded startup WeGrow Edu (WE) in their early 20s with the ambitious goal of empowering children and young people from the ages of five to 24 to better understand sex and sexuality.

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“We especially focus on students from grade 1 to 12. This is when they need the company of an organisation like ours and their families. Currently, schools don’t have really a sex-ed [teaching] model that can actually work and benefit them,” Tu said. 

Students at WE learn how to build healthy relationships and protect their bodies. Each lesson reinforces the validity of their self-identity and their freedom to make their own choices, with a message of gender equality woven throughout.

Sex-ed in Vietnam is based on abstinence and remains a sensitive issue in a country with one of the highest rates of abortion in the world, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data.

“Vietnamese adolescents and young people [typically] have sex for the first time at 16 or 17 years old, much later than their European peers, yet there are more unwanted pregnancies and abortions among them than in many European countries,” said Dr Tu Anh Hoang, cofounder and director of the Hanoi-based Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population (CCIHP).

Sensitivities

She says while Vietnam has become more open with reproductive and sexual health in the last five years with some schools incorporating sex-ed into biology and life skills classes, gaps remain.

“[The education] is not comprehensive and I think it’s a problem,” Dr Tu Anh said.

She compares sex-ed teaching in Vietnam with eating “instant noodles”- a speedy solution with only short-term benefits – noting that many schools rely on one or two sessions with an expert instead of building an entire curriculum on the subject.

Sex-ed is also built around the idea of abstinence, the researcher in gender, sexuality and HIV pointed out.

“Sex-ed was first incorporated in policies and education programmes based on concerns over unwanted pregnancies, abortions and HIV,” she said.

Tu and Linh gave up full-time jobs, a dream for most new graduates, to set up WeGrow Edu, while Ngoc and Thu, still in their third year of university, have to balance their time between study and startup.

The youth-led Vietnam Organization for Gender Equality (also founded by Linh in 2016) provided the seed for the four founders’ new project, germinating many of the ideas that would eventually lead to WeGrow Edu.

Using frameworks designed by the non-profit, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), each comprehensive sex-ed course comprises 10 sessions that include parents and stretch over one month. 

While the coronavirus pandemic halted class activities amid the months-long school suspension in Vietnam, WE still managed to get to people’s homes through their Rise and Shine gift box. There are several different variations of the box, designed for different age groups, but all have five segments containing 30 items which provide a guided learning experience.

The secret corner is where students learn about things which parents and teachers might deem sensitive, Tu explains. 

“For teens (12-15), they learn about contraceptive methods like condoms, pregnancy test sticks, menstruation pads, and a general explainer on LGBT issues. For kids (8-11), the secret corner teaches them about sexual violation, how to defend themselves, the boundary of intimacy, and the concept of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender),” he said.

Tu highlights the importance of children trusting in parents, enabling a sound understanding and application of their knowledge when it comes to sex, their sexualities, bodies and self-identities – so the box includes a separate activity for parents and children to complete together. 

After almost a year and a half in operation, the startup has taught more than 400 students and connected with more than a dozen schools (with more than 4,000 students).

But gaining access to Vietnamese schools as crusaders for sex-ed was not easy especially since the group’s teaching philosophy contrasts starkly with the abstinence-based approach of traditional Vietnamese educators and parents. The four needed to find connections to score a meeting with school leaders, deliver a series of presentations about their curriculum, and then proceed to provide free demo classes to dozens of students before schools would make a decision.

“The challenge is to gain trust in teachers,” Tu said.

“Our team is too young and our background isn’t youth education. We didn’t have much startup experience, so we had to learn a lot of things, there were also many trials and errors.”

Lack of trained teachers

Linh, one of the cofounders, highlights a formidable foe to their business: The lack of trained sex-ed teachers in Vietnam.

“That’s because there is no one training people in this (sex-ed) in our country, so we have to train our staff and make sure they are qualified.”

One of their upcoming projects, which aims to engage 100 high school student leaders and incubate 15 gender equality initiatives around Hanoi to lead the gender equality movement, won funding from the US Department of State last month. Tu declined to reveal the amount of the award.

“The team members, although young, are already dedicated community leaders who have been working for years in the area of gender equality, so we knew they could successfully implement this project,” Rachael Chen, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Hanoi told Al Jazeera.

One of the team’s major successes was a contract with Vinschool, a K-12 private school owned by Vingroup, Vietnam’s largest conglomerate, to co-author a sex-ed curriculum. The programme has been in use in its 32 campuses since September. 

While avoiding unwanted pregnancies is the government’s chief motivation in providing sex-ed, parents are more concerned about sexual abuse and violence.

Last year, many Vietnamese were enraged by reports of the sexual harassment of young women and underage students, which exposed Vietnam’s feeble legal enforcement for sexual assault and protection.

A report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in February said Vietnam’s sex-ed policies and practices did not meet international standards, and noted that it did not include mandatory discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, including LGBT issues.  

Last November, the Ministry of Education and Training officially approved a guideline for teachers from kindergarten to grade 12 to adopt comprehensive sex and sexuality education in their curriculums.

But because there are so few teachers skilled in the subject the ministry has had to draft separate training materials too, according to Dr Tu Anh.

“To be able to teach sex-ed necessitates not just knowledge but also the right awareness and attitude. One can’t teach sex and sexual rights and still refer to them as bad, taboo, and harmful,” she said.

The founders of WeGrow Edu are under no illusions about the challenges ahead, which is why it favours an inclusive and system-wide approach to an often sensitive subject. 

“There is no one single solution that can address a systematic problem. Schools can put all their energy in teaching the subject [sex-ed] but if parents still force girls to wash the dishes because they are girls when they come home then all efforts will be for nothing. That’s why WE tries to incorporate every actor in students’ life as much as we can, step by step,” Linh said.

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Student housing: do I still need to pay if I’ve left?

The coronavirus lockdown has caused major disruption to students, driving many back home as universities have been forced to close, leaving their rented halls of residence or privately rented rooms empty.

Some accommodation providers have agreed to waive or cut fees, but others have refused to release students from their contracts. Students in privately run accommodation in several cities have gone on rent strike, including Portsmouth and Bristol.

Issues about whether or not students must continue to pay rent for accommodation that they are not using due to the coronavirus crisis will depend on the type of accommodation or their tenancy agreement.

If a student has a private landlord, it is likely they will have entered into an assured shorthold tenancy agreement, which may be hard to get out of, says Daniel Fitzpatrick, a housing partner at the law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, although they could try arguing that the contract has been frustrated by the Covid-19 outbreak.

In rare instances, tenancy agreements contain a “force majeure” clause, allowing parties to terminate a contract if events beyond their control prevent them for performing their obligations under it.

While Covid-19 may be a force majeure event, says Manjinder Kaur Atwal, director of housing and property litigation at the law firm Duncan Lewis, it is unlikely to stop a tenancy from continuing.

If students have entered into a contract for a fixed period of time, which is yet to expire, she explains there may be a break clause allowing them to terminate the contract before the end of the fixed term, after providing the required notice.

Students are advised to negotiate with their landlord immediately, as the obligation to pay their rent will continue in accordance with their contract, and adds Atwal, they could remain liable for any rent due up to the expiry of the notice period.

If the contract does not have a break clause or it cannot be applied yet, there is no automatic right to end the contract. Here, students seeking to terminate their tenancy should notify their landlord.

Fitzpatrick says a landlord may agree to terminate the contract, in which case they will no longer have to pay the rent. Alternatively, a landlord may agree to a rent reduction or waiver for a certain period.

In the event the student is not released from the contract, Atwal adds, the landlord has the right to request the money due from the student or their guarantor, even after the student has moved out.

Students could press the landlord to try to rent the property out to others in order to mitigate any loss, suggests Fitzpatrick, noting that once the property is re-let, the landlord cannot continue to charge them.

If a student rents accommodation with others, some of whom do not want to terminate their contract, she adds, that it is unlikely that a student would be able to leave without continuing to pay the rent unless a replacement tenant is found and agreed with the landlord.

For students renting university halls of residence, some universities have agreed to release students from rent obligations. Where they have not, Fitzpatrick suggests that students have a strong case for arguing that they should not be charged for accommodation they are no longer able to use.

“They could argue that they have only rented the accommodation because they are going to that university, and as they cannot go to university they should be able to end the contract.”

If the accommodation is rented from a private landlord recommended by the university, it will be harder for students to get out of paying the rent due, he says.

But he suggests contact their student union and liaison officers and ask them to get the university to negotiate with landlords and press them to waive or reduce rents.

“Where a university has given landlords business over the years, they could suggest that if they do not help their students now, they won’t give them students in the future or they will tell their students to look for other providers”.

Where students come to an agreement with their landlord to change terms, Fitzpatrick suggests noting it in writing, but adds, an email will do rather than a formally drafted contract.

Failure to pay rent that is due or clear arrears, Fitzpatrick warns, can lead to the enforcement action by the landlord, seeking a possession order if the property is still occupied and/or a money claim for the debt if the property has been vacated.

Failure to pay could result in the landlord instructing bailiffs to obtain the value of the money judgment, and he warns, the judgment against them could effect their credit rating, which could affect their future financial plans, making it harder to get credit or loans.

Further information is provided by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. UK students who are struggling financially may also be eligible for benefits to help pay rent, Atwal says.

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Coronavirus crisis no excuse for price-fixing, private schools warned

The competitions watchdog has issued a strongly worded warning to private schools in the UK, threatening hefty fines if they are found to be price-fixing during the coronavirus crisis.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it had been made aware that a number of independent schools “may be engaging in discussions with each other about the level of discounts and/or refunds on school fees”.

A letter from the CMA to the Independent Schools Council and other bodies representing the sector warned that moves to agree prices and exchange commercially sensitive information would almost certainly infringe competition law and could result in fines of up to 10% of total turnover.

Independent schools have been badly hit by the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, with some parents who have lost work unable to pay fees while others are reluctant to pay the full amount for the online education schools are currently providing.

Many schools have already offered discounts and refunds to try to keep families onboard and stay afloat. While the bigger, more established schools will most likely survive, there are fears that smaller schools, which may have already been facing difficulties, will go to the wall as a result of the crisis.

UK government support for workers and businesses during the coronavirus crisis

Direct cash grants for self-employed people, worth 80% of average profits, up to £2,500 a month. There are similar wage subsidies for employees.

Government to back £330bn of loans to support businesses through a Bank of England scheme for big firms. There are loans of up to £5m with no interest for six months for smaller companies.

Taxes levied on commercial premises will be abolished this year for all retailers, leisure outlets and hospitality sector firms.

Britain’s smallest 700,000 businesses eligible for cash grants of £10,000. Small retailers, leisure and hospitality firms can get bigger grants of £25,000.

Government to increase value of universal credit and tax credits by £1,000 a year, as well as widening eligibility for these benefits.

Statutory sick pay to be made available from day one, rather than day four, of absence from work, although ministers have been criticised for not increasing the level of sick pay above £94.25 a week. Small firms can claim for state refunds on sick pay bills.

Local authorities to get a £500m hardship fund to provide people with council tax payment relief.

Mortgage and rental holidays available for up to three months.

The CMA letter, written by its senior director, Howard Cartlidge, and obtained by the Private School Policy Reform thinktank, acknowledged that in the current crisis there may be a need for increased cooperation between businesses to ensure the supply of scarce products and services. This, however, did not give businesses a “free pass” to engage in non-essential collusion, he warned.

He told sector leaders: “We are sure that you share our concerns not just about the unacceptability of anti-competitive practices in the current circumstances, but also the risk of undermining public trust more widely across the independent school sector. It is therefore vital that any poor behaviour is nipped in the bud now.”

Robert Verkaik, a co-founder of Private School Policy Reform, said families who paid school fees would be dismayed by the revelation. “Those parents who have spent tens of thousands of pounds to send their children to an independent school will be rightly very angry if some of the schools are working against their interests by setting uncompetitive fees.”

It would not be the first time private schools have fallen foul of competition laws. In 2006 the Office of Fair Trading, which preceded the CMA, ruled that 50 fee-paying independent schools including Eton College, Harrow and Winchester had breached competition law by systematically exchanging information about pricing intentions. Each school was fined £10,000.

The CMA letter, dated 17 April, was also sent to other representative bodies in the sector, including the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses Conference, and the Independent Schools Association. They have been contacted for comment.

A CMA spokesperson said: “Where cooperation amongst businesses or other organisations is necessary to protect consumers in the coronavirus outbreak, the CMA will not take enforcement action.

“But we will not tolerate organisations agreeing prices or exchanging commercially sensitive information on future pricing or business strategies with their competitors, where this is not necessary to meet the needs of the current situation.

“We welcome the confirmation by the independent schools representative bodies to whom we have written that they are urging competition law compliance on their members.”

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‘I can’t afford rent’: the students facing hardship during lockdown

Growing numbers of students are asking their universities for financial support during the Covid-19 lockdown amid warnings that more will face hardship as the crisis goes on.

Many universities have responded by increasing or creating funds for students in difficulty, with some providing subsidised meals for those who remain on campus. In Scotland, the government has announced a £5m package of emergency financial support.

But according to a survey by the National Union of Students (NUS), 80% of students across the UK are worried about how they will cope financially after losing work and support from their parents.

The NUS has called on the government to supply a £60 million hardship fund that would provide students with a “safety net” during the coronavirus lockdown. The NUS also demanded that universities reimburse students’ tuition fees and allow them to retake the year to make up for the disruption to their degrees.

MPs call for grants to help students in difficulty

This has been echoed by cross-party MPs, who have asked the chancellor to set up emergency maintenance grants for those who are not entitled to claim universal credit.

Nicky Geraghty, a master’s student at Sheffield Hallam University, lives off £90 a week after being furloughed from her bar job, along with her savings that will run out soon. “The hardest part is having no space to study,” she says. “In the house I rent we have a high-up dining table with stools. I have a bad back after an accident a couple of years ago and I can’t sit here for longer than 20 minutes without it being a strain.”

Geraghty tried asking her university if it could supply her with a desk chair. She was told to apply for the university’s hardship fund, but says her application was denied. “I’m stuck on my own in Sheffield, 160 miles away from my friends and family, and I’m worried about how I’m going to be able to complete my dissertation.”

Sheffield Hallam has launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise money for struggling students after its usual hardship fund was overwhelmed by requests from students as a result of the pandemic.

Similar measures have been announced by the University of York and the University of Greenwich. Greenwich has also offered free laptops and broadband for students and staff, while students at the University of Loughborough can request free meals if they are struggling to cope financially while stranded on campus.

Campus lockdown: how to cope alone in university halls

But students will need to meet certain eligibility criteria to receive support. Sophie Cartwright*, a master’s student, applied for the University of Birmingham’s hardship fund after losing her income from three part-time jobs. Although she comes from a single-parent, lower socioeconomic background, she says she doesn’t meet requirements.

“The university requires any postgraduate applicant to have a minimum average of £180 a week in income throughout the academic year in order to even apply to the fund. This is extremely counterintuitive as it means those who most need the financial support are immediately not eligible,” she says.

Some students who have lost their jobs were employed by universities themselves – in campus shops or student unions, for example – and are frustrated by the lack of clarity around the future of their employment.

Issy Emmitt, a third-year student at the University of Bath, was working two jobs on campus before the outbreak, as both a student ambassador and in the campus supermarket. When the lockdown began, she and other student employees were informed via a Facebook page that there was no more work available at the shop.

“Those of us working zero-hour contracts on campus still haven’t been told whether or not we have been officially furloughed or just plain fired yet – four weeks on,” she says. “A coursemate of mine lost three campus jobs and estimates her losses to be already around £1,000.”

In the meantime, Emmitt is worried about how she will pay rent. “I have no savings because of how expensive living in Bath is, and so I’m suddenly in a position where I not only can’t afford my rent, but even basic living necessities,” she says. “I also can’t move home at the moment as my father is severely immunocompromised.”

Rent is a major concern for hard-pressed students. Nearly 75,000 students have signed a petition for universities to suspend all student accommodation rent for those who have returned home due to Covid-19.

‘A weird time’: students tell of a future snatched away

Many universities have waived rent for the final term of the year, and some for the whole year. But according to the Office for Students, only 19% of students live in university accommodation, with the vast majority renting from private providers. In some cases, students stranded in their housing without an income have organised rent strikes.

For students like Cartwright, the financial pressures may be too much. “If I do not receive additional support, I will likely not be able to finance somewhere in Birmingham to live for the remainder of my degree,” she says. “I won’t be able to afford a deposit or save up rent upfront for the new property. Due to the hands on nature of my degree, I need to be in Birmingham to complete my dissertation. I do not wish to drop out, but this is something I’m unfortunately forced to consider.”

*name has been changed

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No date set for schools to reopen, Williamson says as he apologises to nation’s pupils

The education secretary has apologised to the nation’s pupils after admitting there is no date set for schools to be reopened.

Gavin Williamson said the government’s five tests to prove the virus is in decline must be met before schools can re-open – while noting there were no plans to restart lessons over the course of the summer holidays.

The minister said the coronavirus pandemic was at a stage where there are “an awful lot of questions” which people would love to have answers to.

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Speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing, Mr Williamson said: “People are anxious to know when we’re going to relax restrictions, when schools are likely to be fully back and open again.

“Of course, I want nothing more than to see schools back, get them back to normal, make sure the children are sat around, learning, and experiencing the joy of being at school.

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“But I can’t give you a date. Because before we do, we need to meet five tests.”

The five tests, first outlined by first minister Dominic Raab, include protecting the NHS’s ability to cope, seeing the daily death rates come down, and having reliable data that shows the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels.

In a direct address to England’s schoolchildren, Mr Williamson added: “To any young people watching, I wanted to say to you how sorry I am that you’ve had your education disrupted in this way.

“I know how hard it must be, and I’d like to thank you for making the adjustments that you’ve had to make.

“I know you will be missing your friends, your teachers, your lessons.

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“I want you to know that you are such an important part of this fight too, and I cannot thank you enough for all that you are doing.”

It came as the minister announced children from disadvantaged backgrounds across England would receive free laptops and tablets to help them learn from home during the lockdown – part of a push to make remote education accessible for pupils while schools are closed.

However, critics have said the measure does not go far enough, with a number of children anticipated to have fallen into vulnerability as a result of the virus. The Liberal Democrats, in a letter seen by The Independent, have called on the government to raise a volunteer force to identify at-risk children.

Resources are also being pooled into providing learning materials for families who have turned to homeschooling to maintain studies during the crisis.

A new online academy is being launched to offer pupils 180 online lessons a week following government support.

And the BBC is set to launch a range of new educational programming – with figures including footballer Sergio Aguero, former shadow chancellor Ed Balls and actor Danny Dyer offering classes through the broadcaster.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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Lecturers condemn Durham University’s plan to shift degrees online

The University and College Union (UCU) has condemned plans by Durham University to provide online-only degrees and significantly reduce face-to-face lecturing in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The union’s general secretary Jo Grady called on the university to halt proposals to cut “live” teaching by 25% as part of a radical shift towards providing online learning, which she described as “destructive” and “an attack on staff”.

The radical redesign of the university’s curriculum, revealed by student newspaper Palatinate, would “invert Durham’s traditional educational model”, based on residential study, with one that places “online resources at the core enabling us to provide education at a distance”.

Symptom-trackers and doctor dorms: how universities are fighting Covid-19

The proposals, drawn up by deputy vice-chancellor Antony Long and vice-provost for education Alan Houston, warned that Durham has been slow to develop online education compared to its competitors, which posed “a very significant financial and reputational risk” to the university.

Under the plans, seen by the Guardian, some students would only study online, some would be taught on campus, and others would do both. The proposals, drawn up without consulting staff or students, would reduce the number of modules taught in person by a quarter in the next academic year, with the goal of providing at least 500 of them completely online by the summer of 2021.

The document, due to be considered by the university’s senate later this month, also proposes contracting a private education firm, Cambridge Education Group Digital, to develop a business case to implement the plans.

The UCU said that universities “should not see the global pandemic as an opportunity to try and drastically alter their different business models”, and urged Durham to consult properly with staff and students over any changes.

Grady added: “This looks like an attack on the livelihoods and the professional expertise of hard-working staff – all to line the pockets of private providers who don’t have the same track record of providing high standards of education.

“Durham needs to halt these plans. The fact there has been no consultation with staff or students is unacceptable and we will continue to defend the quality of education staff provide and our members’ jobs.

“Changes to our higher education system should be led by staff from the ground up, whether they are necessitated by Covid-19 or not. We will do everything we can to challenge this and any other similarly destructive proposals.”

The Durham plans revealed that a third of its undergraduate and half of postgraduate modules currently lack any online learning, noting: “In the short-term, we risk being unable to provide even a basic ‘minimum viable product’ online for our [academic year] 2020/21 intake.”

The university aims to provide its key postgraduate and first-year undergraduate degrees online by October 2020, with a focus on delivering those with the most “international market potential”.

Durham UCU branch held a virtual emergency general meeting this week where members “voted to firmly oppose rushed long-term changes taken without proper consultation”.

Universities face a financial storm – that’s why we need government help | Alistair Jarvis

More than 300 Durham academics have also signed a letter to vice-chancellor Stuart Corbridge, describing the proposals as “highly concerning … cynical and reckless”.

Prof Antony Long, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor, said: “None of us yet know what the 2020-21 academic year will look like, but we must plan now so that when we do, we have options properly developed and ready to implement.

“Anticipating that some and perhaps a significant number of students will not be able to travel to and live in Durham [then], we are preparing an online, distance learning programme that is both inclusive and high-quality.”

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The government must protect universities in this crisis or job cuts will follow

Colleges and universities deliver vital opportunities and drive economic growth. Yet the current coronavirus crisis is now creating huge financial uncertainty in post-16 education.

As the general secretary of the University and College Union, I have today written to the government setting out a plan that will protect universities and colleges so they can play their full role in the recovery of our society and economy once the virus is defeated.

Hundreds of university staff to be made redundant due to coronavirus

Most importantly, the government must make a firm commitment to guarantee funding for institutions, protect jobs and rule out the closure of any college or university. Without these guarantees vital academic, educational and support staff will be lost – all of whom are incredibly expensive to try and replace.

Our excellent further and higher education systems are powered by an army of staff who do not have proper job security. Around 70% of researchers in universities are employed on fixed-term contracts, while more than 100,000 university teaching staff are also not permanent. In further education colleges nearly 20% of teachers are on a fixed-term contract and 25% are paid by the hour.

These staff are bearing the brunt of the wider financial uncertainty created by the virus. That’s why the government must guarantee all staff – including those on casual contracts – benefit from furlough arrangements. In the longer term, it should also commit to a review of the endemic casualisation of further and higher education.

We need to see colleges and universities work together, and with others, in the national interest. The government should insist that, in return for underwriting current funding, institutions accept a duty to work cooperatively to benefit students and our wider society. This means an end to the unseemly competition for students between institutions, which is both wasteful and unproductive, and will lead to even more financial instability.

This cooperation must extend to exams and assessment. It is increasingly clear that attempts to hold exams on a “business as usual” basis will have profound consequences for the fairness and equality of the process. While staff have been working hard to shift teaching online, the National Union of Students has rightly raised concerns about how all students can participate fully and fairly in exams.

Overambitious plans to resume operations in the autumn risk misleading potential students into believing a return to normal operations is imminent. Only a real partnership between all stakeholders, of the type recently agreed in the railway industry, can give students the certainty they need.

It is welcome news that the research excellence framework, which distributes government research funding, is to be postponed, along with Ofsted inspections in further education colleges. But the government should also cancel all other unhelpful forms of institutional assessment, including the teaching excellence framework, on a long-term basis.

Lecturers went on strike over insecure jobs – now we fear coronavirus cuts | Charlotte Morris

Delivering an economic recovery will require new thinking. One way of achieving this is to expand existing plans to increase skills. Research by the Social Mobility Commission has shown that almost half of people from the least wealthy classes have not undertaken any learning since leaving school, and participation in adult learning has been in freefall since 2010. The government should act now to develop a lifelong learning policy which focuses on reversing 20 years of cuts in adult education. This will benefit the economy and support those hit worst by the current crisis.

Action is urgent to protect our colleges and universities, so they can lead the recovery. Now is the time to turn decisively away from the market-driven madness of the past decade. We need a new mood of cooperation which puts students’ interests first, treats staff as something more than temporary help, and opens up opportunities for everyone in our communities.

  • Jo Grady is general secretary of the University and College Union

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