Reopening schools to pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 “may not be possible for all schools”, Boris Johnson has admitted.
The prime minister also announced that the government does not expect secondary schools to start providing face-to-face support for year 10 and 12 pupils until June 15, two weeks later than ministers initially hoped.
Today I can announce that it is our intention to go ahead with that as planned on June 1, a week on Monday
The government’s plan to have some pupils return to schools from June 1 has been thrown into doubt in recent weeks, after unions and local authorities expressed concerns about pupil and staff safety.
Schools Week revealed on Friday that 27 councils have now questioned the government’s proposals, with seven of those going as far as advising their local schools not to reopen on June 1.
Johnson told the Downing Street briefing today that he believed the government was in a position to “move to step two of our plan”, which includes the phased reopening of schools.
“We said we would begin with early years settings and reception, year 1 and year 6 in primary schools. And today I can announce that it is our intention to go ahead with that as planned on June 1, a week on Monday,” he said.
“We then intend, from June 15, for secondary schools to provide some contact for year 10 and year 12 students, to help them prepare for exams next year, with up to a quarter of these students in at any one point.”
Johnson’s comments about secondary schools represent a departure from the government’s initial plans.
Official DfE guidance currently states that the government would be asking secondary schools to begin face-to-face support “from the week commencing 1 June”.
Asked by Schools Week whether the DfE would seek to enforce Johnson’s stipulation that only 25 per cent of year 10 and 12 pupils may attend secondary schools at any one time, the department said: “Like all the guidance we’ve published, we expect schools to follow it.”
Johnson said that by opening schools to more pupils “in this limited way, we’re taking a deliberately cautious approach, and this comes after a constructive period of consultation with schools, teachers and unions led by the education secretary Gavin Williamson”.
However, Johnson acknowledged that a June 1 opening “may not be possible for all schools”, but said government would continue to “support and work with the sector” to ensure any schools experienced difficulties are able to open more widely “as soon as possible”.
He also said the the government recognised that “full social distancing may not be possible, especially when teaching young children”, and said guidance from DfE “sets out a range of protective measures to keep children and staff safe”.
Johnson said the final decision about school reopening plans would be taken next Thursday,
Unions still concerned
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “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.
“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 according to context.”
Barton also welcomed “the decision to push back bringing in year 10 and 12 students to June 15 and the clarification about the maximum number of students at any one time”,
“However, we have to say that the government has not done a good job in building confidence in its plans.
“It has not communicated the rationale for its chosen approach well, and it left primary schools with little time to plan and implement safety protocols. It is also worrying that the government’s crucial test, trace, and isolate system is not yet in place and is unproven.”
Paul Whiteman, who leads the National Association of Head Teachers, said he had deteched “a hint of a more realistic tone on wider school reopening”.
“That the prime minister acknowledges that flexibility will not just be possible but will be necessary is to be welcomed.
“We will take the prime minister at his word that schools will be allowed to react to their own local situations and will not be forced into opening or penalised if proceeding with appropriate caution. We note that the final decision on bringing schools out of lockdown is still to be made on May 28.”
The government also faces accusations that it announced details of its school reopening plan today to draw attention from concerns about the actions of senior Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings.
Cummings, a former special adviser to Michael Gove during his time at the DfE, stands accused of breaking lockdown rules.
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson said the prime minister “seems intent on rushing to bring schools back in a bid to distract from his scandal-hit spin doctor-in-chief”.
“The concession to give some secondary school children contact with their teachers from June 15 also highlights the failure to push down the R number. The public deserve answers.”