Primary schools in England will reopen next Monday as part of plans for the next phase of eased lockdown restrictions, Boris Johnson has confirmed.
The prime minister said at his Downing Street press conference that primaries would reopen their gates to priority year groups but acknowledged for the first time that some would not.
He also set a date of June 15 for secondary schools to host groups of Year 10 and Year 12 pupils to meet subject teachers. He made no mention of the plan for primaries to reopen to all year groups by late June.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, the school leaders’ union, welcomed “the hint of a more realistic tone on wider school reopening”.
However, the NEU, the biggest teachers’ union, said that it remained opposed to any June 1 reopening.
The education secretary warned the prime minister last week that few parents would send their children back if primary schools were to reopen on June 1, it emerged.
Gavin Williamson told Mr Johnson at Thursday’s cabinet meeting that he expected only a relatively small number of children to return initially, in line with the experience of other countries that have eased lockdown restrictions.
“He said that if we do go ahead we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s a relatively low take up,” a cabinet source said. “The experience in other countries shows that only a relatively small number of parents will take their children back to school in the first week.”
Mr Johnson said yesterday: “I acknowledge that a June 1 opening may not be possible for all schools but the government will continue to support and work with the sector to ensure that any schools experiencing difficulties are able to open more widely as soon as possible.”
Mr Johnson laid out a “road map” of school reopening several weeks ago, with next Monday as the day primary schools would reopen to children from Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.
Teaching unions said the science underlying the plan was flimsy and claimed it would put teachers and pupils at risk. Last week the plan unravelled further, with councils and schools saying they would decide themselves if it was safe, regardless of the government’s view.
The national picture is a messy one. About 20 local authorities, including Liverpool and Hartlepool, say no schools will open on June 1. Roughly the same number say they will and the rest say they are leaving it up to schools to decide, or that only some schools in the borough will reopen.
There are even more disparities when it comes to which children will be received. Some schools are welcoming back children from Reception and Year 1 and not Year 6, and some want Year 6 children back but not the younger year groups.
Regardless of the arrangements, many parents are not persuaded it is safe. Primaries have been surveying them to see if they plan to send back their children.
The Harris Federation, which has 23 primaries in and around London, said that between half and two thirds of parents had said that their children would return. This chimes with the latest national poll, conducted by an Opinium poll for The Observer, which found that 43 per cent of primary school parents were anxious about sending their children back in.
Sir Dan Moynihan, chief executive of Harris, said: “We are expecting attendance to be a bit like a snowball, starting off small but gathering momentum over the summer and autumn terms. After two months of lockdown, it is to be expected that some parents will be worried at first but this will improve.
“Lots of parents are also deeply worried about the impact on their children of staying at home. The reality is that coronavirus may take a long time to resolve, so we do need to find ways to help children get back to school.”
John Jolly, chief executive of the parent group Parentkind, said there was now great confusion about the reopening of schools.
“Parents are not convinced about messages around schools being safe. They are not sure about that message from the government, or that the evidence for that is being communicated. There is a lot of uncertainty about the message being communicated by schools locally,” he said.