It was set up eight months ago by three mothers in Cambridgeshire and has since established itself as an increasingly prominent voice campaigning for schools to fully reopen. Now UsForThem, which has also opposed some Covid safety measures in schools, has won the backing of 17 Tory MPs, and is growing.
As well as being advised by an influential Tory lobbyist, the group met twice with civil servants from the Department for Education (DfE) before key government decisions on coronavirus schools policy were made last year, the Guardian has learned.
It contrasts with fruitless attempts for Whitehall meetings by another grassroots parents’ groups lobbying from a different perspective. Parents United Against Unsafe Schools, whose Facebook group has 23,000 members as opposed to UsForThem’s 9,600 on its England Facebook group, said they have continually reached out to the DfE.
Meanwhile Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, responded six months ago to an UsForThem petition on Change.org calling for masks not be made compulsory in schools, which has gained 16,588 signatures. He has yet to respond to a Parents United for Safe Schools petition with 288,294 signatories, which asks that parents are not fined if they decide against sending their children to school.
UsForThem is being advised by Ed Barker, a former Tory parliamentary candidate and Westminster PR man who played a key role in Boris Johnson’s leadership. He is also advising the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, members of which have backed the UsForThem bid to fully reopen schools.
A press release put out by Barker on Monday said that six more Tory MPs, including Steve Baker MP, deputy chair of the CRG, were backing the campaign, meaning it is now supported by 17 Conservatives.
“Children have now faced almost a year of educational disruption with 700 million days of schooling lost in 2020,” said Liz Cole, one of the three co-founders of UsforThem.
“Report after report tells us of the harms of school closure to children’s physical and mental health, educational outcomes and life prospects. Anxiety and depression among school-age children have increased substantially and, tragically, it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children who are most severely affected and the attainment gap is widening.”
The National Education Union (NEU), the largest teachers’ union, is among those asking questions about the power of UsForThem and its links. In November, the parents’ group projected the slogan “Keep Schools Open” on to the side of the union’s headquarters.
“Parents and school staff will be extremely concerned at the apparent influence this group wields with the government,” said Dr Mary Bousted, NEU joint general-secretary, who said there needed to be full accountability and transparency about its sway.
“While it appears that they have connections in the highest echelons of power, the voices of parents, carers and school staff across the country, as well as scientists, local authorities and public health experts, have been systematically ignored with disastrous consequences for public health and wellbeing.”
UsForThem’s website describes itself as “a community of tens of thousands of parents across the UK campaigning to #ReopenSchools”. It believes that children should be in school and supports what it describes as “evidence-based, proportionate Covid-19 protective measures to ensure schools remain open”. It says it supports “the vast majority of the precautionary hygiene measures that have been proposed by DfE and adopted for schools”.
However, it has lobbied against the use of face masks in schools – pupils and teachers in all English secondary schools have been required to wear face coverings in communal areas and corridors since November – and has also opposed social distancing in education settings. It states on its website that “natural immunity” to Covid should be allowed to build in the population and that the process is being impeded by lockdowns.
But an array of pages on UsForThem’s website, which provides templates for how to lobby MPs by letter and telephone, also appear to have been taken down recently as the organisation came under scrutiny. They included pages directing visitors to “resources” such as articles on a US website claiming that face masks are harmful to the healthy. The same US site hosts articles by conspiracy theorists claiming the pandemic is a hoax and that vaccines are “killing” people.
Barker, whose ties were flagged in an article by Bylinetimes, did not respond to questions about how his work with UsForThem was funded, how he knew the group and if he had facilitated meetings with the DfE. UsForThem, whose website states it has managed to raise £7,646 in donations, also did not respond to a series of questions.
Bousted added: “Some of the views that have been put forward by UsForThem are deeply concerning, particularly the promotion of herd immunity. Other views shade into conspiracy theory and really should not be entertained by government ministers responsible for the safety and wellbeing of millions of children and school staff.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are fully committed to reopening schools as soon as the public health picture allows, and right through the pandemic have taken every step to ensure schools stayed open as long as they could.”