In Depth

Reaction: councils and unions to defy government over school reopenings

Up to 1,500 primary schools set to remain closed on 1 June in coronavirus rebellion

Boris Johnson’s government is facing growing pressure from councils and teaching unions to delay plans to reopen English primary schools next month.

Local authorities across the country have expressed concerns about potential health risks, while a survey of the 29,000 members of teachers’ union NASUWT found that just 5% believed it would be safe for pupils to return to class, the BBC reports.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland insists that ministers are taking these fears “very seriously”, telling BBC Breakfast today that the proposed 1 June reopening was “an important date for everyone to work towards”. But he admitted that there may be “issues… which might not mean that we'll see a uniform approach”.

The Guardian reports that up to 1,500 primary schools are set to remain closed, after “at least 18 councils forced the government to say it had no plans to sanction them” for failing to make head teachers follow the plan. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is today meeting with unions to address concerns over the safety of both children and staff. The Times says that the National Education Union (NEU), Britain’s largest teaching union, is “resolute against the resumption of classes”, warning that social distancing is “virtually impossible for such young children”. 

However, the British Medical Association (BMA) has dropped its opposition to the schools plan, saying that they should reopen “as soon as it is safe to do so”. ITV News notes that the doctors’ union had previously said the government should not reopen schools until coronavirus case numbers were “much lower”. 

The U-turn marks an “apparent softening” of the BMA’s stance, with representatives saying there was “growing evidence that the risk to individual children from Covid-19 is extremely small”, reports The Telegraph

But the union cautioned that there was still “no consensus on how easily children could spread the disease to vulnerable adults”, the newspaper adds.

Researchers remain divided over the threat posed to children by the new coronavirus, although the European Union has said that the reopening of schools in 22 member states has not increased cases of the virus “significantly” among pupils, their families or staff.

In an article in The Telegraph, Peter English, the chair of the BMA’s Public Health Medicine Committee, points out that a “zero-risk approach” to school reopenings “is not possible”. 

“Parents up and down the UK are asking the same question: is it safe? The simple answer is: we do not yet know,” English writes. “This is about ‘safe’ being an acceptable level of risk.”

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As councils and teaching unions continue their fight with Downing Street, the Daily Mail reports that “bitter rows” have also broken out on online forums such as Mumsnet. 

Parents calling for schools to reopen so that they can return to work have reportedly been “lambasted by schools staff”, with some “shamed on WhatsApp by other parents and teachers who claim they are being ‘hung out to dry’ by the government”. 

A Department for Education spokesperson said that the government “want[s] children back in schools as soon as possible”, adding that “being with their teachers and friends is so important for their education and their well-being”.

The plans to reopen are based on the “best scientific and medical advice” and that the “welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision-making”, the spokesperson added. 

Which local authorities are rebelling?

The councils that have so far confirmed they will not reopen schools on 1 June are:

  • Brighton and Hove
  • Slough
  • Teeside
  • Solihull
  • Stockport 
  • Bury 
  • Liverpool
  • Hartlepool
  • Wirrall
  • Calderdale
  • Birmingham
  • Bradford
  • Leeds

The following councils have “expressed reservations” about reopening schools, but are leaving the decision about whether to resume teaching to individual schools:

  • Wakefield
  • Barking and Dagenham
  • Redbridge
  • Bristol
  • Southampton
  • Newcastle

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