'No obligation to re-open' – resistance to June 1 plan as unions demand scientific evidence

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A meeting has been set-up between the government’s scientific advisors and education unions to discuss the evidence that the decision to re-open schools from June 1 has been based on.

The government is facing very strong resistance from teacher and support staff unions adamant that its June 1 timetable for re-opening schools is dangerous.

A joint statement from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) on behalf of trade unions representing staff working in schools claims that the government is “showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, siblings and relatives, and to the wider community”.

Released on Wednesday (May 13), the TUC statement came as teaching unions underlined their view that members should not be working in unsafe conditions and that there is “no obligation” for schools to extend their opening arrangements after June 1 if they think it is not safe to do so.

The Department for Education (DfE) published two guidance documents for schools on Monday (May 11) detailing how re-opening might happen from June 1.

The government wants to re-open primary schools for Reception, year 1 and year 6 children from June 1. It is also asking secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges to “offer some face-to-face support to supplement the remote education of year 10 and year 12 students” – which could take the form of progress meetings with their teachers.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has said that re-opening will only happen on June 1 if the scientific advice says it is safe to do so. It is expected that a final decision on the June 1 timetable will come on Friday, May 29.

The guidance documents – which are for both primary and secondary schools – do not recommend the use of masks or PPE equipment for school staff. Instead, they focus on a range of approaches including teaching pupils in small groups, not allowing mixing between these groups, adjusting timetables, one-way systems, outdoor lessons, and – above all – regular cleaning and good hand hygiene.

However, the NASUWT has labelled the guidance as “inadequate, incomplete and lacking detail on a number of critical issues relating to health and safety of staff in schools and colleges”. It says there is “no requirement or obligation currently on any school to re-open to more pupils” from June 1. General secretary Dr Patrick Roach told SecEd that schools "have a choice about whether they re-open or not from June 1".

The National Education Union (NEU), meanwhile, has advised its members that “we are in no position to start planning for wider opening yet”.

Writing on Twitter, NEU joint general secretary, Kevin Courtney, added: “The government’s laughable so-called ‘guidance’ has not been discussed, debated, tested with us. Therefore, there is no guidance that the NEU has agreed to. You can’t plan without guidance. Therefore, no planning for an opening can begin.

“Don't engage with planning a June 1 return to wider opening – await further union advice.”

And UNISON, which represents support staff in schools, had a similar message. Speaking to SecEd, its head of education Jon Richards said that the government’s plans were “rushed” and have not been created in partnership with all the unions.

He added: “People are genuinely scared of going back into work; worried for their children and themselves. The government has not acted to calm those fears.”

The DfE guidance states that “there is high scientific confidence that children of all ages have less severe symptoms than adults if they contract coronavirus”. However, unions say that no evidence has been presented about the extent to which children can transmit the virus.

The DfE is now under pressure, from the trade unions and others in political opposition, to publish the evidence upon which it has based its June 1 decisions.

Updating his members on Wednesday (May 13), Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that a “meeting has been fixed” with government’s scientific advisors in order that the scientific evidence can be detailed for education unions.

He said: “It will be the next stage of us working together whether we’re in teacher unions, other unions, leadership organisations like ours, of actually asking the really difficult questions, getting the answers that either reassure us or don’t reassure us so that we can then decide where we go from there.”

The TUC statement adds: “Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules. Fifteen children in a class, combined with their very young age, means that classrooms of four and five-year olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread.

“While we know that children generally have mild symptoms, we do not know enough about whether they can transmit the disease to adults. We do not think that the government should be posing this level of risk to our society.

“We call on the government to step back from June 1 and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools.”

Speaking to SecEd, Dr Roach added: "We have been clear that there is no obligation on schools to reopen on June 1 and if they cannot demonstrate that it is safe to do so they should not re-open to more children. No teacher should be expected to go into a school which is not safe.

"Schools have a choice about whether they open or not from June 1 but they must make that choice on the basis of protecting the health and safety of staff and pupils and not acting in a way that could increase the transmission rate of the virus in the community. While the government may have June 1 as an ambition to start to re-open schools, this does not mean schools should re-open on this date if they cannot be sure it is safe to do so. The government needs to step back from the June 1 target date and work with us to set out clearly how all schools can be made ‘Covid-19 secure’. The safety of pupils and staff is paramount."

“Nothing that has been said by the government or the DfE has changed the NASUWT’s position that no teacher should be expected to go into a school that is not safe and until it can be demonstrated that it is safe to do so and we will be continuing to support and advise members on that basis.”

Dr Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, said that the government’s timetable is “simply not safe”. She added: “Staff in schools and colleges are asking for the evidence behind the decision to select some year groups. Education staff do not feel reassured that the government is taking these steps with public health in mind.

“The government has stoked teachers' anxiety and triggered real confusion because the announcement is inconsistent on the importance of social distancing and how or whether it can be achieved in schools. This is not fair to anyone and it is not safe to put out a timeline until the public safety test has been met.”

Mr Barton, however, urged his school leader members to begin their planning work: “Of course we are all arguing for the scientific evidence, of course that is essential for all of us – but actually our job as leaders working with our governors and trustees is to do some of the scenario planning. And we continue to think that that is essential, because at some point, whether it is from June 1 or whether it’s much later than that, our schools, our colleges will start to re-open and we are the guardians of our young people and our staff and we have to know that we have done what’s appropriate.”

It comes after the other home nations roundly rejected the idea of re-opening schools from June 1.

In Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has rejected the June 1 date and said that a phased re-opening before the summer holidays, which in Scotland begins in June, “might not be possible”.

In Northern Ireland, the partial re-opening of schools has been included as part of step 3 of a five-step plan unveiled on Tuesday (May 12). The Northern Ireland Executive has not set out a timetable, but first minister Arlene Foster said she hoped to reach the final stage by December and progression would depend on health-related criteria.

For schools, it states under step 3: “Schools expand provision for priority groups on a part-time basis, using a combination of in-school and remote learning.” And under step 4, it adds: “Schools expand provision to accommodate all pupils on part-time basis with combination of in-school and remote learning.”

In Wales, it has been confirmed that schools will not re-open from June 1. Education minister Kirsty Williams said: “The situation for schools in Wales will not change on June 1. You have my guarantee that we will give everyone time to plan ahead of a next phase starting. Any decision to increase the operation of schools will be communicated well in advance. We will continue to be guided by the very latest scientific advice and will only look to have more pupils and staff in schools when it is safe to do so.”

Further information

  • DfE: Actions for educational and childcare settings to prepare for wider opening from June 1, May 11, 2020: https://bit.ly/2WoJjTa
  • DfE: Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings, May 11, 2020: https://bit.ly/2yN0pkQ
  • Northern Ireland Executive: Executive approach to decision-making, May 12: https://bit.ly/35TIDIM
  • Scottish Government: Coronavirus (COVID-19): framework for decision making - further information, May 5, 2020: https://bit.ly/2SWLw6k
  • Welsh Government: Leading Wales out of the coronavirus pandemic: A framework for recovery, April 24, 2020: https://bit.ly/2WsxsUd


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