Ministers face pressure to change stance on reopening schools

20 May 2020, 07:05

The doctors' union has changed its stance on schools reopening in England
The doctors' union has changed its stance on schools reopening in England. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

The British Medical Association says schools should reopen "as soon as it's safe to do so" - despite ministers facing pressure to reconsider their plans.

The Government wants to begin a phased return for some primary-aged pupils in England from next month, but local councils and teachers unions have warned against doing so.

The doctors' union previously said coronavirus case numbers needed to be much lower before such measures could be brought in.

But now the union has said schools should only reopen when it is “safe to do so," but added that there was growing evidence the risk to children from coronavirus is “extremely small” and cautioned there is "no united view yet" on whether children can spread it.

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Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Dr Peter English, the BMA's public health medicine committee chairman, said: "The decision about when schools should be allowed to reopen is an extremely difficult one.

"We know that the longer children are kept away from the classroom, the greater the harm to their education, life opportunities and wellbeing.

"For disadvantaged children, this harm is even greater. A focus on arbitrary dates for schools to reopen is polarising.

"The BMA wants schools to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so and the evidence allows - this could be before June 1 or after. But a zero-risk approach is not possible. This is about 'safe' being an acceptable level of risk."

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The UK's leading education unions have called on the Government to "step back" from its proposed plan to start reopening schools in England from 1 June.

In a joint statement, the AEP, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, NSEAD, Prospect, Unison and Unite unions said: "We all want schools to reopen, but that should only happen when it is safe to do so."

The Education Secretary assured teachers and parents the envisaged June 1 returns would be the first phase of a "controlled and careful" return to schooling which would involve a range of protective measures.

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These would include keeping class sizes small, making sure children stayed within small groups, observing strict hygiene and cleaning measures, and having breaks and mealtimes staggered to reduce crowding.

A number of councils have advised their schools against reopening more widely to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils from June 1 amid safety concerns.

The chief executive of the National Governance Association, Emma Knights, said that governing boards would have to "think very carefully" before disregarding the advice of local authorities".

She added: "If they were to do that they would have to have very good reasons why they had come to a different conclusion."

The comment came as a poll from teachers' union NASUWT suggested that only 5% of teachers think it will be safe for more pupils to return to school next month.

General secretary Patrick Roach said the union remains "unconvinced" that wider reopening of schools from June 1 is "appropriate or practicable".

Deputy chief scientific adviser Professor Dame Angela McLean told the daily Downing Street press conference on Tuesday that changes to the lockdown restrictions would require an effective system for tracing new cases to be in place.