Cllr John Pennington is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Bradford Council

West Yorkshire consists of five Labour-controlled Authorities. One intends to sit on the fence regarding schools reopening; three intend to delay; and one will actively work towards fully reopening. Strange that the latter has the least pressure from a Union who by their detrimental actions elsewhere are stopping children from learning.

In Bradford, the Labour-led Council, by clever wording, almost discourage head teachers from reopening by highlighting the need to properly consider the health and safety risks, risks now not deemed to be safe or stringent enough for the children of key workers already accommodated. The message gives the impression that school returns are potentially unsafe, thereby discouraging especially the vulnerable children to return. It is incredibly frustrating that Bradford Council seems to be making a political issue out of this. The Council have adopted a win win position which leads to confusion and inconsistency across the district with the potential that some schools will open whilst others stay shut. Indeed one school has already indicated they will not open at all before the summer holidays. The Council state they have listened to the concerns of schools, parents, and unions, and share concerns about the stance being taken by the Government in the reopening of schools.

The teachers union are trying to persuade their members not to co-operate with Government plans for a limited return to school, arguing of particular risks to teachers and clearly favouring a delay until the start of the new school year. Here we have a union supported by the Labour-led Council but they do not shout for fear of upsetting the Treasury whose taxpayers money they want more of. One of our Labour MP’s has gained column inches by calling for schools to be kept shut.

After following all the correct procedures, two Bradford schools have been forced to close on advice from Public Health England. One closed when two related pupils tested positive for coronavirus and another, a staff member. The premises require a deep clean which can take up to a week and both staff and children have to self isolate. Some schools have been open for most of lockdown, over 10 or more weeks to accommodate keyworker children and the vulnerable, the latter have been the most affected. School heads are under extreme pressure, reassuring the safety of children, staff, parents, and families, compounded by having to make weekly data returns with an almost running commentary and up to 50 questions. It is to be expected that head teachers and staff have reservations, so support and encouragement should be given so that they do not become negative. Councils also need to ensure that resources are available to provide PPE and distancing aids, hand sanitiser or soap are simply not adequate.

Hundreds of children from disadvantaged backgrounds across the district suffer from digital inequality. Pupils who normally rely on schools and libraries to gain access to the internet are unable to do so during lockdown. Recent research suggests that two-thirds of pupils have not been accessing online lessons. Through another excellent Government scheme, Bradford Council has secured 2,151 computers as well as laptops, tablets, and 4G routers to help with home schooling during the pandemic. Provided free, this will be of particular help to the underprivileged Year 10 students who are due to take GCSE’s next year.

I do ask for caution, even while the Treasury’s generosity must be taken full advantage of. It is one thing to source and distribute such valuable learning aids but they must be put to maximum use and for the intended purpose. The quoted phrase, working with other agencies, gives me the shivers. It can mean a pat on the back for distribution, a tick in the box for job done, when in fact the job is only just starting, someone somewhere needs to be responsible for the whole process. In the age of digital tracking, surely it is not beyond the wit of man (or woman) to track the equipment to ensure that it is being used by the correct person for the purpose intended.

If there is no activity or incorrect use we should ask why. Perhaps help is needed. Failure to comply will necessitate return or being paid for, followed by redistribution to a good home and a repeat of the process. For far too long in many situations I have witnessed departments distributing items like confetti because they have “not cost anything”; well it has cost you and I the taxpayer. If the process is not monitored I can easily envisage the equipment either not reaching the intended recipient or simply being sold on; Rishi Sunak deserves better.

In Bradford, we are currently winning the battle locally if not in the Press, with a calmer return to work. The Local Government Minister has re-iterated that families who do not wish to return their children to school will not be penalised. My message is never bite the hand that feeds you and that councils need a more sophisticated message to Government other than ‘we want more money’. Believe me, times are going to have to change.