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Leeds: Could leisure centres become temporary schools?

Schools should use community halls and leisure centres to help teach more children during the remainder of the Covid-19 lockdown, according to a Conservative councillor in Leeds, writes Richard Beecham.

Leeds City Council’s shadow member for children and families, Coun Ryan Stephenson, has called on the the authority to make plans for schools to use community halls and leisure centres to increase socially distanced teaching spaces.

But the council’s executive member for schools claims the authority has no plans to use such measures, as the government had advised against it.

Only some schools in the city have reopened to at least one year group from the beginning of June, while new guidelines require schools to reduce class sizes to comply with tailored social distancing rules.

Headteachers across Leeds are now working out how many children they can accommodate in existing classrooms, but Coun Stephenson said he wanted schools to take a cue from the government’s recent Nightingale initiative, in which large indoor spaces were used as temporary hospitals. He said:

“Every week that a child spends outside of a school setting, particularly a disadvantaged child, is another week they risk falling behind their peers in educational attainment. We must prepare properly for a full school return as soon as possible.

“There is no certainty that social distancing guidelines will be sufficiently relaxed by September to allow schools to return to normal, indeed there is no certainty that teaching unions won’t boycott further attempts to get children back into education.

“It has now been over two weeks since I asked senior education officers in Leeds if they had begun an audit of available community facilities to help schools expand teaching space where there isn’t already sufficient capacity.”

Coun Jonathan Pryor (Lab), Leeds City Council’s executive member for employment, learning and skills responded:

“The vast majority of Leeds schools have been open throughout this crisis for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

“In recent weeks, we have supported schools to open more widely to eligible year groups in a way that keeps pupils, staff and parents as safe as possible. 99 percent of our primary schools and all of our secondary schools are now taking additional pupils.

“Schools have undertaken detailed and thorough risk assessments, and these have indicated the numbers of pupils that each school can safely accommodate whilst taking into consideration social distancing and staff availability.

“We continue to follow government guidance, which has advised that community buildings, such as village halls, should not be used to expand capacity this term and that there is no expectation for primaries to welcome back more pupils outside of nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 if they do not have capacity.

“We await further guidance from the government about the start of the academic year to inform our plans for September and whether additional teaching space will be necessary.

“We would like to thank all school staff across the city for their amazing efforts and support for children and their families during this difficult time.”

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