Unions chief: lack of planning risks chaotic reopening of schools

Ministers must avoid a “last-minute” approach to reopening England’s schools, the head of the umbrella organisation of unions has said, as the government’s scientific experts prepare to publish evidence about the safety of the move.

With just 10 days to go until 1 June, the date named by Boris Johnson for more children to return to classrooms, the TUC secretary general, Frances O’Grady, is pressing the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to establish a taskforce, which would include people from unions representing teachers and non-teaching staff, to work out the details.

O’Grady said that without proper planning and communication there was a risk of a repeat of “the chaos and confusion the prime minister’s back-to-work announcement caused”.

England’s primary schools have been told to prepare to welcome more pupils from 1 June – but that date has not yet been confirmed, and a growing number of councils have said they will not comply. Welsh and Scottish schools will not reopen on 1 June.

“Getting kids back into the classroom must be done in a safe and planned way. As it has done in other sectors, the government urgently needs to a set up a Covid-19 education taskforce with unions and other key stakeholders. We have been pressing Gavin Williamson for this,” O’Grady said.

She added: “This will help give confidence to staff and parents, many of whom currently feel in limbo.”

The government’s roadmap document said the 1 June date could be delayed if the pandemic was not sufficiently under control. “Changes will be announced at least 48 hours before coming into effect,” it said.

In his widely watched Sunday night statement on 10 May, Johnson appeared to suggest more workers in England should be “actively encouraged” to return to the workplace the next day. But the government later clarified that the changes came into effect on the Wednesday. The devolved governments also rejected his “stay alert” slogan and continued to advise people to stay at home.

The government’s panel of scientific experts, Sage, is expected to publish a series of papers on Friday covering the evidence behind reopening schools to more pupils.

The Department for Education and Williamson have already held several joint meetings with the teaching unions – the National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders, the National Education Union (NEU) and the NASUWT – the most recent being on Tuesday, where school reopenings were discussed.

The teaching unions say there has been “no shortage” of meetings with officials and ministers, from Williamson down, but that unions representing non-teaching staff have been excluded. A meeting involving all school unions has now been pencilled in for next week.

Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “It’s good, but belated, recognition by Gavin Williamson and ministers that they need to talk to all school staff unions.

Ministers row back on 1 June schools opening as councils voice concerns

“The problem all along is that this government doesn’t understand how schools work. They are highly complex institutions, and if ministers had listened to staff then they wouldn’t have gotten into the mess they now find themselves in, with a widespread revolt among councils.”

The government in recent days softened its language around Johnson’s 1 June start date. Headteachers noted that the DfE’s updated guidance issued to schools on Thursday said they should prepare for reopening “from 1 June, at the earliest”.

Children in reception, year 1 and year 6 are to return first. Johnson said in his statement that he wanted all primary school students to spend a month in the classroom before the summer holidays.

But with stringent distancing measures required, including splitting children into “bubbles” of no more than 15, ministers accept that may not be feasible. Councils and headteachers have said schools do not have the extra space needed.

The Scottish government announced on Thursday that its schools would not reopen until 11 August – after the summer break, which begins earlier in Scotland. Even then, schools will operate a “blended model” involving a mix of classroom- and home-based learning.

The Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Layla Moran, said: “Liberal Democrats have demanded from the outset that the government publish the scientific evidence behind their decision to reopen schools. Yet, with just 10 days before schools are due to open, parents and teachers are still being kept in the dark.

“This announcement is so long overdue. We all want to get children back in school but the public need answers, particularly [about] the likely impact on the infection rate of these measures.”

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