Plans for reopening of schools in England pushing ahead despite disagreement from teachers, parents and councils

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Damon Green

A government minister has indicated plans to reopen schools in England as early as June 1 will still go ahead, despite disagreement from both parents and councils.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, told ITV News "if we can get schools back by the beginning of June, we should do", but admitted "discussions are ongoing" with teachers' unions, who want the plan abandoning.

He said "children in the most deprived areas often rely on going to school", but a survey by the National Education Union (NEU) showed just "one third of poorest families say they will send children back" before the end of term.

The prime minister's spokesman hinted a decision on the reopening of schools next month will likely be made this week.

He said the government continues to “want to work with schools in order to get more children back into an education setting”.

“As we have always said, safety comes first, but we must also be aware of the potential damage to a child’s education from not getting them back in the classroom," he added.

The comments follows the publishing of a lockdown roadmap, which among other plans, set the ambition that reception, year one and year six pupils could begin a "phased" return to school as early as June 1, if science shows it is safe.

More than 420,000 people have signed an NEU petition saying schools should only reopen when certain tests can be met which prove it is safe.

Among other things, the union wants to see "concrete plans to have regular testing of children and staff, availability of appropriate PPE and enhanced levels of cleaning".

It was one of six unions - MB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, Unison and Unite -which co-signed a letter calling for the prime minister to step back from his plans.

Labour shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, echoed calls from school unions, saying staff, parents and pupils must all be "reassured that all steps have been taken, with regard to safety".

"Unless it's done, people just won't have confidence in this, so I urge the government to get everybody around the table, and to be transparent, because that's what we need to do going forward," he said.

But it's not just politicians, unions and parents worried about reopening schools in June - several councils have indicated they may defy government plans if they feel necessary.

Councils in Liverpool, Gateshead, Hartlepool, Newcastle, Sunderland, Wigan and Rochdale have all expressed concerns with the plans.

The issue with a June reopening of schools arises from data showing significant differences in regional 'R numbers (rate of infection).

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said she backed councils in trying to ensure their residents are safe.

She told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that safety information for areas including Greater Manchester, Liverpool and the north east "hasn’t been there".

“We believe the R rate is higher in those areas, in those regions, so therefore we want the Government to publish the science behind it and provide the support,” she said.

Data released on May 14 showed the R number in London to be as low as 0.40 and as high as 0.80 in the North East and Yorkshire.

Also on Sunday, Cabinet minister Michael Gove sought to allay fears, saying there is "clear scientific and clinical advice" that it is "safe" to schools to reopen with social distancing.

“We want to proceed in a balanced way to ensure the children have the opportunity to be back in school, to benefit from learning and, as a result, to ensure that their future can be more secure,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.

But the chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) said the government should not consider reopening schools in England until the coronavirus case numbers are “much lower”.

Meanwhile, the leaders responsible for some 350,000 children signed a statement saying absence from school could be academically and socially “calamitous” for disadvantaged pupils.

The signatories, who included Dixons Academies Trust’s Sir Nick Weller and Dame Rachel de Souza of Inspiration Trust, said: “If we do not take action and reopen schools soon, the impact of lost learning could be irreparable.

"The gaps between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in our communities are widening daily and we will face years of frantic endeavour, in inevitable austerity, to compensate for this dislocation of learning.”