Ministers facing renewed pressure over push to reopen schools

Education unions are meeting the chief medical officer and other experts today to discuss the government's push to reopen schools in England amid mounting criticism of the approach.

Unions and the Local Government Association (LGA) have expressed concerns as ministers push for a gradual reopening of classrooms from June 1.

But the teaching unions have faced their own backlash over their approach, with former Labour education secretary Lord Blunkett saying: "I am being deeply critical of the attitude.

"It's about how can we work together to make it work as safely as possible. Anyone who works against that in my view is working against the interests of children."

Empty school classroom

The debate about schools and safety has been prompted by the government's decision to announce a phased reopening from the start of next month in England.

There are no plans yet to follow suit in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and teachers' unions have expressed fears that the move would be too soon due to the risks of infection from coronavirus.

But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has defended the approach, saying he arranged Friday's meeting to brief teachers' representatives on "the scientific advice underpinning our approach".

Mr Williamson said if the scientists said a "limited number" of children could be sent back to school, it was his duty to allow this to happen.

The Education Secretary assured teachers and parents the June 1 returns would be the first phase of a "controlled and careful" process which would involve a range of protective measures, including keeping class sizes small, making sure children stayed within small groups, observing strict hygiene and cleaning measures, and having breaks and mealtimes staggered to reduce crowding.

Boris Johnson, announcing his plans for taking England out of lockdown, said Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils would go back first.

But National Education Union joint secretary Mary Bousted said a "wider opening of schools, too early, poses a lot of unanswered questions about the risks in poor communities".

Local authority leaders also accused ministers of going too fast on schools and demanded more local control over their return.

The LGA has said schools should be allowed to make their own decisions about reopening, especially in areas where there is a higher proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic residents.

Councillor Judith Blake, chairwoman of the LGA's children and young people board, said parents were "anxious" about sending their children back to school and said more needed to be done to reassure families.