Cllr Will Sweet is the Cabinet Member for Education and Children’s Services in Wandsworth. He was the Conservative candidate in Putney in the General Election.
The smiles on children’s faces as schools re-opened was a reminder that, as the Prime Minister said, “the education of our children is crucial for their welfare, their health, their long-term future, and for social justice.”
Conservative local authorities worked non-stop to get schools open. We must use the same methods to get more children back to school safely before the summer break.
In Wandsworth, we had one of the highest numbers of schools re-opening in the country on day one, with every single mainstream school open within a week. Now we’re using the same can-do approach to expand capacity and welcome more year groups. We want to repay the trust and faith that parents and carers have put in us.
As a result of our actions, Wandsworth has significantly above national average attendance. Some of our schools expect every year group back. How are we doing it?
The days of councils telling schools what to do are long gone. The relationship between local authorities and schools – whether maintained, academies, or private schools – is at its best when it works on partnership.
Never has this been more true than during coronavirus, where the decision to open sits firmly with headteachers and governing bodies. We have had no hesitation backing them.
But there has still been a huge role for local authorities. As a council we controlled the controllables. Our schools helped us see what is blocking the path for them to open to as many year groups as possible.
Then we unblocked, unblocked, unblocked.
We figured out together what might stop teachers returning to work. That meant guaranteeing personal protective equipment (PPE) for schools. Council staff delivered 8,000 facemasks, 8,000 pairs of gloves, and 8,000 medical aprons, along with 50 litres of sanitising hand gel. We’re providing free mental health support too. For teachers that can’t walk or cycle, we’re offering free council parking permits so they can get to work without public transport.
Schools were worried they wouldn’t have space for social distancing. With class sizes limited to 15, we offered free use of council buildings for extra classrooms. To help with playgrounds, we waived maintenance fees to rent council green spaces. And to sort out pick-up and drop-off, we offered a traffic-free ‘School Street’ to any school that needed it. One-third of our schools will soon have one.
Our public health experts partnered with schools on risk assessments, deep cleans, and handwashing procedures. Schools have ingeniously redesigned Victorian buildings with one-way corridors and separate ‘bubbles’.
For our most vulnerable, we worked with special needs transport providers to help children get to school safely. And we introduced a local Free School Meals app from week 1 of lockdown, which we’re keeping switched on.
No child should be left behind because of digital poverty, especially while some continue learning from home. Through our one-of-a-kind ‘Power to Connect’ partnership with Battersea Power Station, we refurbish laptops donated by the council, businesses, and residents. We give them to children, with data vouchers and dongles. Together with the government scheme, we’ll soon reach 1,100 laptops.
In the best local authorities, schools work like a family. In Wandsworth, academies and maintained schools have stood together, shared best practice and offered peer support. Private schools are playing their part in our communities as we recover together.
Our teachers have a sense of mission and that’s why so many have come back to school, sometimes in the face of difficult union demands. Wandsworth schools are famous for their inclusive approach to children with special needs and from vulnerable backgrounds. This ‘child-centred’ approach gives teachers a stronger appreciation of their impact on children’s lives. And they see the importance of socialising and routine on young people’s mental health. As the Education Secretary says, “for each day that children miss out on formal lessons, their hopes and future chances are put at risk.”
The unions put scary posters up near our schools, which isn’t fair on our children and ignores the council’s work to address concerns. I’m so proud of our teachers and young people for coming back to school. They shouldn’t be political footballs. When my Labour opposite number spoke at a conference to stop schools from re-opening, my overwhelming feeling was disappointment.
The fact is, we re-opened schools as a team and now we’re getting more year groups back as a team. Teachers, council officers, businesses, residents, children, parents and carers are working together. If there is one thing I am determined to preserve from this crisis, it will be this team staying together. That way, we’ll get even more children back to school, we’ll help them catch up, and we’ll improve education for the long term.