Jersey schools to reopen in early June

Schools in Jersey will reopen to some year groups from 8 June, the education minister has announced.

Pupils in year six in primary schools and years 10 and 12 in secondary schools will be the first to return.

Schools have been closed to children except those of critical workers and vulnerable children since 20 March.

A “bubble” approach will be used to keep groups of children separated with their teacher, the government said.

Staff and children in secondary schools will be grouped together in “bubbles” and have to keep 2m (6ft) apart from other “bubbles”, and within their group.

There will be “greater flexibility” for those in primary schools.

Anyone with coronavirus symptoms will not be allowed to return.

Further safety measures will include staggered lunch times, avoiding shared equipment, and increased cleaning.

PPE will be made available to staff and children if any person in the school becomes symptomatic, the government said.

Dr Susan Turnbull, medical officer of health, said there was evidence of lockdown restrictions causing “worrying collateral harm” to children.

A government survey found that 48% of 2,105 children said they felt worried, and more than 80% said they missed their friends.

Education Minister Senator Tracey Vallois said: “I know how much children have all missed their friends, teachers and schools, which is why we are working hard, following the health advice, to ensure that more children can return to school as soon as is practically possible, while ensuring that public health measures can be maintained.”

She said there would be some “discretion” in the attendance policy to provide “flexibility” for households which contain someone who is shielding.

Private nurseries will also be allowed to open to a set number of children, and child-minders will be permitted to care for small groups.

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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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Why reopening French schools is a social emergency

It’s obvious that a lack of schooling has increased inequalities, says France’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. “Social emergency” is the term he uses to describe the need to unlock the country’s schools.

France started reopening its education system after lockdown with primary schools, because it was even more important for young people than for older pupils, he explained.

In the UK, there has been strong opposition to the government’s plans to reopen schools in England on 1 June. Some scientists, councils and teachers’ unions say it’s too soon to welcome pupils back safely.

In France, 40,000 primary schools have reopened since lockdown was lifted on 11 May along with some middle schools.

So far, around one in five primary school pupils have returned to class. Mr Blanquer admitted that the children who had returned were often those from wealthier families.

“It’s true that the children of poor families are coming less than the others,” he said. “That’s why it was important to start in May, not in June, because we know that it’s [a] step-by-step [process] with poor families. It takes time to persuade people.”

Why is there a social divide?

Fathia Sissani lives in Seine-Saint-Denis, a poor suburb of Paris that last month recorded the highest rate of coronavirus deaths anywhere in France.

She is a single parent to three children, two girls and a boy, aged between 11 and 14. She gave up work to look after her middle child, who is disabled.

Her youngest, Riya, has dropped out of school because it was too hard for him to follow the courses online at home.

“I’m a parent, not a teacher,” says Fathia. “I grew up in Algeria so I studied in Arabic. I speak French well, but I don’t understand lessons like maths or grammar.”

Her internet connection has also been a problem. “I had to change provider because I didn’t have a good signal,” she explained. “I was having difficulty connecting to the school. Everyone is online. We tried for a bit, but I’d had enough of it.”

Having everyone at home has been hard for Fathia. Her two daughters love school, but even though schools are reopening she isn’t sending any of them back into class yet.

“I was among the first parents who said ‘no’. I can’t allow myself to take this risk,” she says. “At school, there are lots of pupils; you can’t watch everyone or follow all of them, you can’t let them out to play. So I’m against the idea.”

The town where school gates are staying shut

It’s not yet compulsory for parents to send their child back to school in France, and many parents say they’re nervous about it.

In Sens, a pretty market town 100km (62 miles) south of Paris, all the state primary schools have remained closed since lockdown was lifted because of three suspected cases of coronavirus reported by teachers. All have since tested negative.

The town’s mayor, Marie-Louise Fort, says her decision to shut all 19 schools was very popular.

There’s too much pressure on parents, she told me, because the government has asked each family to decide if their child should return to school.

“The way it is now creates guilt for the parents,” the mayor explains. “If they put their children in school and they get sick, they’ll feel guilty; if they keep them at home and they fall behind, they’ll feel guilty. When you govern, you have to take clear decisions.”

How the government is trying to get children to return

When I asked the education minister whether it was unfair to pass so much responsibility on to parents, he said the reasoning behind this decision was exactly the opposite.

Even before the closures, more than 90% of parents in Sens told the local education department that they wouldn’t be sending their children back to school. And most of the parents we spoke to in the town said they were still planning to keep their children at home.

“The best way to reassure parents that it’s safe is other parents and other children,” Mr Blanquer said. “The fact that the first 10 days have been a success is the best factor, because people see on TV that they’re ok, they’re happy to come back.”

The education ministry has issued 56 pages of detailed instructions to schools on how to keep their premises clean and their pupils safe, in the hope of building trust.

There must be no more than 15 children in a class, no shared toys, and timed arrivals at school. Children over the age of 11 also need to wear masks.

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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.”

Dear Gavin Williamson: teachers like me can no longer look to you for leadership | Gary Collins

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.



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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‘Not safe to reopen schools,’ warn teachers’ unions

Plans to reopen primary schools in England do not have adequate safety measures and need to be halted, warns an alliance of school teachers’ unions.

A joint statement from heads, teachers and support staff unions calls on the government to “step back” from a 1 June start date.

But in the House of Commons, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson warned against “scaremongering” over safety.

He said “the disadvantaged will suffer the most” with closed schools.

“Sometimes scaremongering, making people fear, is really unfair and not a welcome pressure to be placed on families, children and teachers alike,” he told MPs, in questions over the return to school proposals.

Teachers are already a priority for testing for coronavirus, but Mr Williamson said that pupils would also be a priority for testing if they or their families showed symptoms.

But the Liberal Democrats’ education spokeswoman, Layla Moran, challenged the education secretary to immediately publish the scientific evidence on which the return to school was based.

In a collective response, teachers’ unions have rejected the plans for a phased return of primary school pupils after half term – saying it was still too early to be safe.

“The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools,” said a statement from nine unions, including the National Education Union, the National Association of Head Teachers and Unison.

The union called for a delay to reopening until a “full rollout of a national test and trace scheme” was in place and there were extra resources for cleaning, protective equipment and risk assessments.

“Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules,” says the statement, which calls for a new taskforce, including teachers’ unions, to plan the return to school.

The joint union statement says that “classrooms of four and five-year olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread”.

“We call on the government to step back from the 1st June and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools.”

But Mr Williamson told MPs that opening schools was the “responsible” course of action, now the virus was “past the peak” and that safety was uppermost in how it was being planned.

“The best place for children to be educated and to learn is in school,” he said, particularly for the disadvantaged who would be most likely to fall further behind.

Instead of a fixed date for a return, Labour’s shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, argued that schools should reopen only when there was clear evidence it was safe.

“The guidance provided so far does not yet provide the clear assurances over safety that are needed,” she told MPs.

She said that families were still worried about the implications of pupils going back to school, such as for relatives who might have illnesses.

In Wales, the First Minister Mark Drakeford has said schools would not open on 1 June.

In Scotland, it is not expected that schools will re-open before the summer holidays.

In Northern Ireland, Education Minister Peter Weir has spoken of a possible phased return of schools in September.

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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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Private schools criticise plans to get more poor students into university

Leading private schools have challenged plans to widen access to the most selective universities in England, warning they could lead to discrimination against young people “on the basis of the class they were born into”.

The intervention by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents many of the country’s most expensive independent schools, reflects members’ concerns that new measures to improve access for the most disadvantaged students could lead to discrimination against students from elite private schools.

The HMC was responding to plans, published on Wednesday by the higher education regulator for England, the Office for Students, that promise to halve the access gap at England’s most selective institutions in the next five years, increasing the number of disadvantaged students by 6,500 each year from 2024-25.

Record numbers of state school pupils offered Oxford places

HMC’s executive director, Mike Buchanan, said universities should expand to accommodate as many “truly suitable students” as necessary, rather than “rob some students of a future to award it to others”. He also called on universities to review the increasing number of international students, rather than “deny places to UK students based on their class”.

Since the lifting of the student admissions cap in 2015, the number of places at many universities has grown exponentially, but undergraduate numbers have remained relatively stable at Oxford and Cambridge, though both claim to have made significant progress in diversifying their student body.

The OfS report, Transforming Opportunity in Higher Education, details ambitious commitments by universities to improve equality of opportunity for students. Currently, young people from advantaged areas of England are more than six times as likely to attend selective universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and other members of the Russell Group, as those from disadvantaged areas.

Despite the huge expansion in university places, the gap has barely changed. Under new plans drawn up by universities and approved by the OfS, the ratio will be cut to less than 4:1 by 2025, and could be eliminated in 20 years. The OfS is also hoping to reduce the gap between the proportion of white and black students awarded a top degree – a first or a 2:1 – from 22% to 11%.

Buchanan said the HMC was confident their students would continue to secure places at prestigious universities at home and overseas, thanks to excellent results and soft skills. “However, care is needed in starting actively to discriminate against individual young people on the basis of the class they were born into. The country needs all its young people to reach their potential if we are to create a bright new future for Britain post-Brexit.”

Buchanan said contextual admissions – which allow universities to take into account an applicant’s educational and socio-economic background – were reasonable “if used on a sophisticated, individual basis”, but it should not be about school type.

“Independent schools play an important role in getting disadvantaged students into university through offering free and discounted places. Not all state-educated students are disadvantaged and the majority of students from affluent backgrounds are not educated in HMC schools. This is why a sophisticated approach is needed for the country genuinely to level up.”

Kalwant Bhopal, a professor of education and justice at Birmingham University, said: “It is clear that those students who attend independent fee-paying schools are more likely to be white and middle-class and are more likely to go on to hold top high-earning jobs. These schools continue to perpetuate privilege. Contextual admissions are one small step to addressing inequalities of opportunity facing children from many working-class, and black and ethnic minority families.”

Chris Millward, the OfS director of fair access and participation, said if universities did not increase student numbers, then groups that were currently highly represented would end up being less represented as a result of the new targets.

“We expect providers to work towards these targets because they tackle two urgent priorities: the need to open up all of our universities to people from those communities where progress into higher education is lowest, and to ensure that every student has the same chance to succeed once they get there.”

The universities minister, Chris Skidmore, said it was damning that such large gaps still remained between disadvantaged students and their peers. “I am pleased to see universities being ambitious in their plans to reach out to those from disadvantaged backgrounds and to support them through their studies. But for universities which do not meet their registration conditions, I fully support the OfS to take appropriate action.”

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