Boris Johnson was given a boost on Monday in his efforts to reopen all schools in England next month after teaching unions lent their conditional support to the move and local authorities indicated they would not stand in the prime minister’s way.
Previous efforts by ministers to get more English primary school pupils back in June, after the easing of the coronavirus lockdown, were derailed by safety warnings from teaching unions, scepticism from parents and instructions from some councils to keep them closed.
Downing Street said it was confident all English schools would open their doors from next week. “We are in a very different position to June,” one government official said. “Once children are back, we are sure everyone will see it’s the right place for them to be.”
The big teaching unions said they would support the move, but called for more detailed guidance on how to protect students and staff, especially the vulnerable, and how to respond to any infections.
“We support safe school reopening in September and leaders have been working extremely hard on that, but we would be a lot more confident if the ‘what-ifs’ had been answered,” Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told the Financial Times.
She added: “Everyone accepts the rate of transmission will rise [with schools returning]. That in itself is not a reason not to open but we have to do it with our eyes open, with track-and-trace and contingency plans in place.”
Her comments came after Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, added to growing pressure for a return to school over the weekend, citing the relatively low infection risk. He warned of the risks to their education if pupils were not allowed back and the impact on the economy of working parents having to stay at home.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We agree with the chief medical officer that the balance of risk is very strongly in favour of children going to school, and we fully support the reopening of schools to all pupils.”
But he called for “greater urgency” from the government in producing contingency plans to cover issues such as ensuring remote learning is available if children are again forced to go from home.
Government officials are also feeling more confident that councils across the country are prepared to toe the line, noting that no local authority had so far opposed the move.
More than 20 councils told schools not to reopen when the government advised more pupils could return from June 1. Just 52 per cent of schools with eligible year groups had taken in more pupils, according to Department for Education data.
But Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, which represents councils, told the FT: “We will continue to work closely with local schools, partners and the government to ensure the national and local effort to get all children back into school settings in England is a success from next week.”
Downing Street was given a further boost by the conclusion of a study by Public Health England this weekend which showed there was little evidence of the virus being transmitted in schools.
“Safety fears have largely been allayed as schools have been working over the summer to make sure they are Covid-secure,” one government official said. “Obviously there is also a lot more infrastructure than there was at the start of the pandemic.”
However, Ms Bousted expressed “surprise” that the government still had not released advice on how to deal with any positive coronavirus tests in individual schools. Measures could range from sending home the affected “bubbles” of students to closing the whole school.
Government officials insisted “clear and detailed guidance” on a September return had been available to schools since the start of July. They said the guidance was clear that individual schools could be required to close in case of infection.
A Downing Street spokesman said ministers would have to look on a “case-by-case basis” whether to close down the entire school and that headteachers could be asked to provide remote lessons.
They also insisted there were “no plans” to introduce face masks for pupils in secondary schools after Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, put the rules under review in Scotland.
Polling published before schools were due to reopen in June found that almost half of parents were planning to keep their children at home, but more recent surveys suggest there is more support for the return.
In the latest YouGov poll on August 4, 57 per cent of people believed schools should fully reopen after the summer holidays, against just 25 per cent who said it was too soon.