A headteachers’ union has warned that schools will be unable to hit the government’s target for all primary school pupils to be back in classrooms before the summer holidays.
In a major blow to the lockdown easing plans, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said it had “very significant concerns” about ministers’ expectation that children would be able to return to school before the academic year ends.
“These proposals, as they currently stand, are likely to prove impractical and unworkable in most schools,” the NAHT said, adding the aim was “not realistic”.
Sending children back to school would free up parents. The government is now encouraging those who can’t work from home to return to work.
In a blueprint for easing the lockdown, the government said it aimed for all primary school children to return to school a month before the summer holiday if feasible.
The NAHT, which represents 29,000 head teachers and other school leaders, said this would not work.
“Unless there is a dramatic change in circumstances in the coming month, we do not believe this will be possible,” the union said. “We believe that the chances of the necessary conditions being met are exceptionally low.”
The NAHT advice adds to a growing row between education leaders and the government over its plan for schools to reopen.
On Wednesday, NAHT joined with other teaching unions in urging the government to delay its 1 June target for the reopening of some primary schools.
An alliance of nine teachers’ unions said the plans had to be put on hold and that it was too early for any assurances that it was safe for children to return.
The joint statement said that “classrooms of four- and five-year olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread”.
“We call on the government to step back from the 1 June and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools.”
One headteacher told The Independent that questions remained over the government’s plans for a phased return to school, which would start with some children – including those in early years settings, reception and year 1 – returning from the start of next month.
“There needs to be transparency around the information on why they believe opening schools is safe,” said Simon Smith, from East Whitby Primary Academy.
“Matt Hancock was on the TV the other day saying ‘we think it is OK’. If we are talking about the safety of children, the safety of staff, we think it isn’t good enough. I don’t think you can social distance in schools with young children.”
Mr Smith said social distancing could be challenging in particular for nursery teachers, whose charges may need nappies changed or to be comforted if they are upset.
He told The Independent: “We have to balance that sense of how we can be safe with humanity, otherwise we run the risk of creating schools that horrify children and they never want to walk into them again.”
In the coronavirus “recovery strategy” released this week, the government said the target remained under review.
After Boris Johnson laid out the school plans in his speech on Sunday, one headteacher from the St George’s Church of England Primary School in Kent wrote to parents, saying: “I am not going to sit here and write to you to say we can achieve social distancing in a school.”
Howard Fisher added: “What is missing from this discussion is a sensible, rational debate around better solutions, such as repeating a year and coming back when we have more science to support us. Believe me, I would rather any child repeats a year than go back too soon and have to lose a child.”
The government wants children in early settings, reception, year 1 and year 6 back in school by 1 June.
Speaking about NAHT’s concerns over the “unrealistic” aim, Rachael Warwick, executive headteacher of Ridgeway Education Trust, said: “It is hard to know what realistic is in the current situation because it is unprecedented.”
The president of the Association of School and College Leaders told The Independent: “We need to make schools as safe as we possibly can and we need to be guided by the science. We need to work together collaboratively to make that happen, because we have a responsibility to start to reopen schools and to offer education to all children.”
Another union has told its members they can refuse to go back to work unless they are given the same protection as other front-line workers, it was reported on Thursday night. The Guardian reported that NASWUT, in a letter signed by its general secretary, had said it would consider legal action to push back the 1 June re-opening date.
Education union leaders will on Friday meet with the Chief Medical Officer and other experts to hear reasons for the government's push to reopen schools.
England is the only part of the UK asking schools to begin phased reopenings from the start of next month, raising fears among teachers' unions about the risks of infection from the coronavirus.
Sending children back to school will be encouraged but voluntary.
Writing in Friday's Daily Mail, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, set down a marker for the unions. “Parents are doing a fantastic job helping children learn at home, but nothing can take the place of a teacher,” he wrote. “All of us in education have a duty to work together to get children back to school.”
The Department of Education has been contacted for comment.
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