Boris Johnson is pressing ahead with plans to reopen schools on 1 June but moved to appease councils and teaching unions by acknowledging for the first time that primary schools in England won’t have to reopen to more pupils until they are prepared.
The acknowledgment by the prime minister came in his opening statement at the daily Covid-19 press conference on Sunday, in which Johnson said the government wanted primary schools to plan for allowing pupils in reception, year one and year six to return on 1 June.
But Johnson took notice of the controversy the 1 June reopening date has sparked among local authorities, parents and teachers, with many saying it was too early, especially in those areas of the north-east of England where coronavirus infection rates remain high.
“Now I acknowledge that a June first opening may not be possible for all schools but the government will continue to support and work with the sector to ensure that any schools experiencing difficulties are able to open more widely as soon as possible,” Johnson said.
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said in response: “The government has yet to reassure parents and teachers that opening schools from 1 June will be safe, and now appears to accept that many schools will not be able to reopen on that date.”
Johnson also named a later date for secondary school pupils to return, with only year 10 and year 12 - pupils in their first year of GCSE and A-level studies – able to meet their teachers from 15 June.
Johnson later told the press conference that England’s schools were likely to have fully reopened by September. Last week the national governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland announced that were not reopening schools more fully until late August.
School leaders and teaching unions said they were glad to hear Johnson’s acknowledgement that reopening after the half-term holiday this week was unrealistic for all schools, and that many would need more help.
“We welcome the prime minister’s recognition that it will not be possible for all primary schools to open to more pupils from June 1,” said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
“The reality is that many schools will need to phase back eligible pupils over a period of time, and there will be a great deal of variability across the country.”
The prime minister said the Department for Education “will engage with teaching unions, local authorities and school leaders in the coming days, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and probe the evidence behind our plan.
“The final decision will be taken as part of the formal review into lockdown measures, which the law requires us to undertake by Thursday. We will, of course, continue to consider all the evidence, as we said we will do, and we will continue to work hard with those bodies over the course of the coming week.”
But Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said the government needed to “step back” from the 1 June cliff edge.
“The 1 June date has become toxic and counterproductive. The government has ended up in an unnecessary debate about ‘when’, when it should have had a much more open dialogue with organisations like ours about the ‘how’,” said Whiteman, writing in the Guardian.
The NAHT leader – who represents mainly primary school heads and senior staff – also defended the role of the teaching unions in challenging the government over its plans despite the heavy criticism they have attracted from some wings of the media.
“Basic questions we’ve asked the government have been interpreted as nothing short of treason. Questions like, what is the scientific rationale for a 1 June return date? Are large groups of children all in one place likely to spread Covid-19 and cause a second spike? It is not unreasonable for the government to have these answers, and to share them,” Whiteman said.
“Armed with this information, there is not a school leader in the land who would stand in the way of opening up more widely. Without such reassurances, leaders struggle with the ethical side of opening up, unsure of the risks and therefore unable to mitigate against them.”
Whiteman revealed that the DfE’s discussions with unions have been “business-like and open. That’s not to say it is getting everything right, but it really isn’t the case that we’re at loggerheads as some front-page headlines have suggested.”
Two polls published over the weekend – one in the Daily Mail and one in the Sunday Telegraph – found that 60% of parents were not prepared to allow their children to go back to school.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of schools in England, told Sky News that implementing social distancing for children as young as five “is going to be like herding cats, it’s going to be really difficult. But other schools are doing it abroad and we should be doing the same.”