The government believes it “may be in a position” to begin the phased reopening of schools on June 1, the prime minister has said.
In a televised address tonight, Boris Johnson said he hoped pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 would be able to return to schools on June 1, which would have been the first Monday back after the May half term break for most areas.
He also set out an “ambition” to allow secondary school pupils with exams next year “at least some time with their teachers before the holidays”, and detailed guidance on how this will work will be set out “shortly”.
But his proposals have already been dismissed as “reckless” by the National Education Union, while headteachers have also expressed concerns.
Johnson said today: “In step two – at the earliest by June 1 – after half term – we believe we may be in a position to begin the phased reopening of shops and to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages, beginning with reception, year 1 and year 6.
“Our ambition is that secondary pupils facing exams next year will get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays. And we will shortly be setting out detailed guidance on how to make it work in schools and shops and on transport.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL leadership union, said his organisation was “concerned about the idea of reopening primary schools to significantly more children after half term”.
“It is not clear to us how the reintroduction of such significant numbers of pupils in primary schools can be safely managed, particularly considering that reception and year one comprise very young children with whom social distancing is extremely difficult.
“And we are worried that personal protective equipment in schools has so far been dismissed, leaving an over-reliance on social distancing in environments where this is inherently problematic.”
Barton insisted his union was “not trying to impede the reopening of schools”.
This follows claims by the Mail on Sunday that ministers fear unions, local government bosses and oppositions are “colluding to sabotage the reopening of schools”.
“Throughout the crisis we have highlighted the importance of bringing in more pupils when the time is right to do so and there is a clear plan in place to manage it safely,” said Barton.
“Unfortunately, we are not persuaded that either of these two simple tests has yet been met.”
He added: “We welcome the prime minister’s assurance that this timescale is not set in stone and will be postponed if necessary, and we will continue to work constructively with ministers and officials, as we have done throughout this crisis.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the proposal was “nothing short of reckless”.
“Coronavirus continues to ravage communities in the UK and the rate of Covid-19 infection is still far too great for the wider opening of our schools.”
The NEU surveyed its members following the announcement, and received 49,000 responses in the first hour.
Of those first respondents, 85 per cent said they disagreed with Boris Johnson’s proposal to restart lessons for reception, year 1 and year 6 from June 1, and 92 per cent said they “would not feel safe with the proposed wider opening of schools”.
Paul Whiteman, from the NAHT headteachers’ union, said: “We now know a little more about what the government’s ambition is for schools. However, without explanation of why or how such a return is considered to be safe, tonight’s announcement will not pass the ‘confidence test’, with parents or school leaders.
“As things stand, there is no prospect of more pupils in schools until June 1st at the earliest. That, at least, gives the government a small window of time to explain the basis of its decision and what it will do to mitigate the risks. It is essential that this happens in collaboration with the profession.”