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Justice Secretary Robert Buckland acknowledged there might not be a “uniform approach” across England towards reopening primary classrooms from June 1 as set out in the Prime Minister’s blueprint for easing the coronavirus lockdown. The Prime Minister’s spokesman insisted the Government was committed to getting as many pupils back at school “as soon as we can.”
Doubts about reopening schools have intensified this week as growing numbers of local authorities raised safety concerns. Yesterday the Local Government Association, which represents town halls, warned that varying coronavirus infection rates around England meant that “some areas may want to work faster than others.”
Pressed about the issue in a series of broadcast interviews yesterday, Mr Buckland said: “I don’t think any of us want to put either children or our dedicated teaching staff in any danger at all, and the question of being safe is clearly paramount.
“So we’re all working towards June 1 and planning for that return, but I accept the point that there may well be issues from employers that need to be addressed which might not mean we’ll see a uniform approach on June 1.”
The Justice Secretary added: “Conversations are continuing between the Government and teachers’ representatives, and in some settings arrangements are being made which lead to a high degree of confidence that the risk can be managed and the setting can be safe.
“Clearly, other employers feel that is not the case and I think we have to respect and understand that and remember that June 1 was a conditional date.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “The Department for Education continues to meet with head teachers, teachers and the unions, and we continue to listen to their concerns.
“We have a plan for a cautious phased opening from June 1 and we do want to get more children back into school as soon as we can, but when it’s safe.”
Anger has been growing among many parents at union opposition to allowing children back to schools.
Yesterday it emerged that Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told colleagues that the organisation’s hard-line stance was a “negotiating position”.
Speaking in a video conference to union officials last week, she said: “We have to trust you not to spill the beans when it is clearly a negotiating position.”
Under the Prime Minister’s plan for easing the lockdown, children in reception, Year One and Year Six are due to return to school from June 1.
Other year groups are due to return on a phased basis before the summer holidays.
Judith Blake, the chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said yesterday: “Councils have worked with all schools to keep them open throughout the coronavirus pandemic for vulnerable children and families of key workers.
“We know how vital it is for a child’s development to be in school, particularly for the most vulnerable children.
“Councils are keen to support their local schools to get children back as soon as possible. However, the safety of children, their families and staff will always be the top priority.
“As there are different COVID-19 infection rates around the country, schools and councils must be able to work together to decide how and when schools open to more children. Some areas may want to work faster than others.
“Councils also need crucial testing data to be shared with them, to help enable greater confidence for teachers and parents around school openings, and powers to manage outbreaks in places like schools, care homes, businesses and communities if new COVID-19 clusters emerge.”
Labour said a track-and-trace system should be in place before schools return.
A spokesman for party leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “What we are calling for is for the Government to try and reach a consensus with teachers’ and parents’ organisations to drive a way through and find a way to respond to those concerns with practical proposals within the next couple of weeks.”
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