Coronavirus: Williamson pledges to 'work with the sector' on school reopenings

Gavin Williamson has promised he will “work with the sector” to decide how schools should reopen, but only “when the time is right”.

The education secretary also promised the “difficulties that social distancing present” in schools will be “taken into account”.

But he reiterated “no timetable has been set” for reopening.

Schools have been closed to all but the most vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers since March 20. Data released this week shows that attendance nationwide is about 1 per cent, with about 5 per cent of vulnerable pupils in school.

There has been speculation about how the government will handle the return of pupils.

Some newspaper reports have suggested the return could be staggered, with priority given to pupils in year 6 ahead of their transition to secondary school, and years 10 and 12 who are preparing for exams next year.

On Sunday Williamson played down reports in The Sunday Times that some pupils could return as early as May 11, and promised to give the sector “proper notice” once the government made its decision.

In an exclusive interview with Schools Week, Williamson sought to reassure headteachers that their voices would be heard.

“We have been very clear that no timetable has been set for the reopening of schools.

“We will work with the sector to decide how schools should reopen, when the time is right.”

His comments came after unions warned that schools must not fully reopen until the government could guarantee the safety of staff and pupils.

Writing in Schools Week, Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said that the conditions were “not yet in place to even begin to envisage when schools might reopen”.

Dr Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT, called for schools to be deep-cleaned and for personal protective equipment (PPE) to be issued to staff before any restart.

Williamson told Schools Week it was “vital that teachers, parents and children can return to schools with confidence”.

“We will, of course, take scientific advice on how best to ensure that. Schools will not reopen until the government’s five tests are met.”

The tests were set out last week by Dominic Raab, the first secretary of state (see boxout).

Williamson’s intervention also comes after Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder and headteacher of the Michaela community school in north London, warned that social distancing in schools was “impossible”.

“What I don’t want is for people to perpetuate the lie, and it is a lie, that social distancing [in schools] is possible. It just isn’t,” she told the Today programme.

Williamson said he appreciated “the difficulties that social distancing measures present in educational settings”.

“That is a factor that will be taken into account when it comes to considering how schools should reopen.”