Coronavirus: Heads can refuse to reopen schools if they don’t think it's safe, say leadership unions

Headteachers can refuse to reopen their schools to more pupils if they don’t believe they can do so safely, leadership unions have warned.

The National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders, which between them represent tens of thousands of senior and middle leaders, said the final decision on whether to allow pupils back will rest with schools themselves.

Boris Johnson announced last night that that he hoped pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 would be able to return to schools on June 1, and set out an “ambition” to allow secondary school pupils with exams next year “at least some time with their teachers before the holidays”.

But unions representing leaders have expressed serious doubts about the government’s plans, and said they would back their members if they decided to resist attempts to reopen prematurely

In an email to NAHT members, general secretary Paul Whiteman said school leaders “are still the people who know their schools best”.

“If the national guidance (once known) cannot be safely applied in your school, you will retain the power along with your governing body or trust board to make decisions regarding the safety of pupils and staff based on your own individual risk assessments.

“This may ultimately mean that schools are not in a position to expand pupil numbers in the way the government has indicated on June 1.”

Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, said he hoped the government “will not try to force through a timetable which is unrealistic and that it is prepared to be flexible”.

“After all, the prime minister gave assurances to this effect in his speech,” he added.

“However, if we end up in a situation where headteachers and governing bodies do not feel it is safe to reopen their school, based on their assessment of the risk to their pupils and staff, we will fully support their right to make that decision on behalf of their school community.”

The Department for Education has said it will publish further guidance for schools this afternoon.

The decision to wait almost 24 hours to give leaders more details of the government’s plan has been widely criticised, with heads labelling the announcement “confusing”, “frustrating” and “unfair”.

According to the NAHT, 90 per cent of members who participated in a webinar run by the union on Thursday night said they “did not feel confident that it would be safe to open their schools in the coming weeks”, while 95 per cent said they did not think that their staff would feel confident.

“I strongly suspect that tonight’s announcement will have done little to allay those concerns,” said Whiteman in his message to members.

“If anything, I expect the announcement has only served to increase the anxieties of school leaders and teachers throughout the country.”