Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is attempting to break the deadlock between the government and teaching unions over children returning to school next month.
Boris Johnson’s plans to reopen schools from 1 June as part of easing the coronavirus lockdown are facing a revolt from unions, headteachers, local government leaders and city mayors.
Backed by teaching unions, council leaders are demanding powers to close schools if testing reveals new COVID-19 cases and some mayors are threatening to refuse to allow them to reopen.
So Mr Williamson has announced that he has arranged for teaching union leaders to meet England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and other experts for a briefing on his scientific advice.
Earlier this week, the education secretary accused unions of scaremongering over his plans for a phased return of pupils, claiming class sizes of 15, extra cleaning and other safeguards would help make schools safe.
But writing in the Daily Mail, he has struck a much more conciliatory tone, insisting safety comes first and the 1 June return to school – for primary school pupils – is just the first phase of a controlled and careful return to school.
If, based on the latest scientific advice, we can get a limited number of children back to school, then I believe it’s my duty to do all I can to get them back there, because being in school with a teacher is the best way to learn, he writes.
Of course 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.
It is now over seven weeks since schools were restricted to all but a very small number of children and until the rate of infection from coronavirus starts to come down, we cannot bring more students back.
In that time I’ve been constantly talking to heads and teachers’ unions about how best to open schools in a phased and careful way.
Later today I have arranged for union leaders to meet the chief medical officer and other experts so they can be briefed on the scientific advice underpinning our approach.
Mr Williamson says he agrees with the former Labour education secretary, David Blunkett, who this week said it was important to get the most disadvantaged children back into schools as soon as possible.
He says younger children are at the head of the queue to go back to school, along with pupils who will be moving up to secondary school and those older pupils who are going to be sitting their GCSEs and A Levels next year.
This is the first phase of a controlled and careful return to school, he writes. It’s not happening overnight and it isn’t going to happen without schools putting in place a range of protective measures to reduce transmission.
The safety of children and their teachers is my number one priority.
I know some teaching unions still have concerns, just as I know parents and teachers have some worries. I intend to carry on talking to all of them and working with them on any issues they may have.
All of us in education have a duty to work together to get children back to school.
Let me reassure families that we are giving schools all the guidance and support they will need to welcome pupils back.
This includes keeping class sizes small, making sure children stay within small groups, and being rigorous about hygiene, cleaning and staggering break and mealtimes.
But the revolt by what Conservative ministers have in the past called The Blob – unions and political opponents campaigning against Tory education policy – is growing.
Demanding powers to close schools, Judith Blake of the Local Government Association, said: We know parents are anxious about sending their children back to school or nursery.
Plans to reopen schools and early years settings must focus on reassuring parents that it will be safe for children to return to school. Publication of the scientific advice is vital to help provide that reassurance.
The safety of staff, parents and families is absolutely paramount.
Councils need to be able to close provision where testing indicates clusters of new COVID-19 cases and it is vital that schools have the resources to provide staff with necessary protective equipment, as well as soap and hand sanitiser for cleaning.
Backing the LGA, NAS/UWT general secretary Patrick Roach has claimed teachers can legally refuse to return to work unless they receive the same protection as other frontline staff.
And on school closures, he said: Taking the step to close a school where testing indicates a cluster will be a vital part of controlling the spread of the virus.
However, such a mechanism relies on an effective and widespread testing and tracing programme to be in place, something which to date is still woefully lacking and which the government has failed to get a grip on.
We have challenged the government to publish the scientific advice which underpins its decision to try to start to reopen schools from 1 June and to explain how it can demonstrate to school staff and parents that the decisions it is making are the right ones to protect public health.
The NASUWT remains clear that no school should reopen until it can demonstrate that it is safe to do so.
Earlier this week Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson declared that he would not allow the city’s schools to readmit pupils if he felt the safety of staff and youngsters would be put at risk.
And Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham urged ministers to work with trade unions before ploughing ahead with proposals to open primary schools to all pupils before the summer break.