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UK pupils had one of the longest classroom closures in Europe, analysis of Oxford data suggests

PIC: Ben Birchall / PA

Labour examined Oxford University’s Covid-19 response tracker.

Pupils have suffered with longer school closures in the UK than almost all other European nations during the coronavirus pandemic, according to new analysis.

Labour accused Education Secretary Gavin Williamson of a slew of failures as it said only Italy had suffered longer classroom closures in the continent.

The party's analysis of Oxford University’s Covid-19 response tracker suggested the UK’s schools and universities spent 44% of days between January last year and this July in complete closure.

It found that only Italy fared worse on 48%, while Ireland was 10th on 29%. The analysis did not take into account time periods of expected closure.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “The Conservatives’ failure to respond to the Covid crisis has kept kids out of class for far longer than their European counterparts.

“As the new school year starts, Gavin Williamson is again burying his head in the sand, ignoring the advice of scientific experts and risking creating a climate of chaos for schools if Covid rates rise.”

Hundreds of thousands of pupils are returning to the classroom this week to a relaxation of safety measures that had been keeping coronavirus rates under control.

Schools and colleges in England no longer have to keep pupils in year group “bubbles” to reduce mixing, face coverings are no longer advised and isolation rules have been relaxed.

Head teachers’ unions have warned this could lead to rising infections among school-aged children.

Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton said the Government had “by any measure fallen short of what was needed”.

“Its decision-making has too often been ponderous, its guidance has lacked clarity, and it has had a tendency to double down on flawed policy decisions before having to perform U-turns,” he said.

“It has not supported schools and colleges adequately during this period and has left them shouldering far too many responsibilities which are public health rather than education tasks.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added: “The best way to minimise disruption to children’s education and keep them in the classroom is to keep Covid cases low. Parents and school leaders will therefore be looking to government to do everything in its power to ensure this.

“The government has chosen to remove many of the mitigations that were in place in schools last year, and it has done very little to look to replace these with alternative safety measures. Its reason for removing bubbles and isolation requirements was to stop children missing school. But if an increase in cases means more children getting ill, lost learning could actually increase for many.

“A strategy of ‘hoping for the best’ is not good enough, at the very least they must ensure that we have a properly functioning test and trace system that parents can have confidence in, a quick and effective public health response should additional mitigations be required in some schools, and support for schools to improve ventilation wherever needed.”

A Department for Education spokesperson described the research as “misleading” as education is a devolved matter and the UK Government is only responsible for overseeing it in England.

They added: “Education remains a national priority, and the success of the vaccine programme means schools and colleges will deliver high-quality, face-to-face education to their pupils this year, with minimal disruption.

“We have also committed to an ambitious education recovery plan, including an investment to date of over £3bn and a significant expansion of our tutoring programme, to support children and young people to make up for learning lost during the pandemic.”

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