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Do not deny pupils the chance to learn over masks issue, says minister

Masks were only ever a temporary measure, Schools Minister Robin Walker said.

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Pupils sit in class (Ben Birchall/PA)

Pupils sit in class (Ben Birchall/PA)

Pupils sit in class (Ben Birchall/PA)

Schools Minister Robin Walker has said that pupils must not be denied the opportunity to learn if they refuse to wear masks.

In the Commons’ questions on education, Conservative MP Bob Blackman thanked staff for keeping schools open as much as possible during the pandemic.

But he called on Mr Walker to agree with him that “forcing children for seven hours a day to wear a face covering is unfair – and particularly to those that are hard of hearing?”

Mr Walker, who was standing in for Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi as he isolated following a positive Covid test, said Mr Zahawi had “always said” that masks in classrooms were only introduced as a temporary measure while the impact of the Omicron variant was evaluated, and that “they should not be in place for a day longer than necessary”.

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Robin Walker (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA)

Robin Walker (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA)

PA

Robin Walker (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA)

“We no longer recommend them and no child should be denied the opportunity to study for refusing to wear a mask,” he added.

During the questions on education, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Committee, also raised Centre for Social Justice research suggesting more than 100,000 “ghost children” have not returned to schools and “almost 800 schools are missing entirely a class worth of pupils”.

Mr Walker said addressing attendance was a “top priority”, adding: “I’ve been discussing with the children’s commissioner this designation of ghost children; we both feel it’s somewhat unhelpful, these are flesh and blood children who deserve to be in school and have the chance to benefit from face-to-face education.”

Mr Walker was also questioned over the issue of air cleaning devices being provided for schools, and why devices were “more than 18 months late and are being offered to fewer than one in 30 classrooms”.

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Robin Walker said the Government has always said masks were a temporary measure (Danny Lawson/PA)

Robin Walker said the Government has always said masks were a temporary measure (Danny Lawson/PA)

PA

Robin Walker said the Government has always said masks were a temporary measure (Danny Lawson/PA)

Labour’s Bill Esterson said: “Sage advised the Government to improve ventilation in schools in May 2020, they warned the Government to prepare for winter in July 2020.

“Over 10 million days of in-person teaching were lost last term, over 400,000 children were out of school with Covid last week. A quarter of schools faced teacher absences of 15% or more.”

Mr Walker said that the Government had delivered 353,000 CO2 monitors and up to 9,000 air cleaning units to ensure “adequate ventilation”, as well as committing a further £8 million to boost the in-school vaccination programme “all of which helps to protect face-to-face education”.

“The Government has consistently guided that ventilation is an important part of the measures to take against Covid, but what we have done is we’ve actually had a world-leading programme of rolling out, first of all the CO2 monitors so that we could identify where the classrooms were that needed extra support in this respect,” he said.

“Roughly 3% of classrooms came back as needing the extra support and the secretary of state confirmed last week every single school that meets the criteria and has applied for those will get them paid for… so this is a successful response to actually ensure that schools have the support that they need,” he added.

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Pupils who refuse to wear masks should not be denied a chance to learn, said the schools minister on Monday (Jane Barlow/PA)

Pupils who refuse to wear masks should not be denied a chance to learn, said the schools minister on Monday (Jane Barlow/PA)

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Pupils who refuse to wear masks should not be denied a chance to learn, said the schools minister on Monday (Jane Barlow/PA)

Shadow education minister Stephen Morgan challenged the Government over the slow pace of the vaccination programme for 12 to 15-year-olds, which was causing “avoidable” absence rates.

Mr Morgan said: “Vaccination is key to protecting our children in the classroom, but 46% of 12 to 15-year-olds still haven’t had their first dose.

“One in eight children were off school earlier this month, causing more avoidable disruption to their education.

“Ministers missed their own target to offer every child the vaccine by October half-term, so can the minister tell the House what his vaccination target is now and when does he expect to meet it?”

Mr Walker replied: “As he knows, vaccines have never been compulsory for children. We want children to have vaccines but they are optional and they are something which require consent.

“We are absolutely continuing to support the vaccine programme. The secretary of state announced just last week that we collected just under £8 billion to accelerate the vaccine programme in schools and of course the community pillar continues to be available to children in those age groups.”

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