The scale of the reopening of primary schools in England appears to have fallen far short of ministers’ expectations, with more than two in five schools failing to admit more pupils, according to the UK’s biggest education union.
A poll of members of the National Education Union (NEU) found that 44% of schools did not admit more pupils in any of the year groups chosen by the government to be the first to return to school from 1 June as part of a phased reopening following lockdown.
In some areas where levels of coronavirus infection remain high, the proportion of schools reopening to all eligible year groups was far below the national average. Just 8% of schools in the north-west and 12% in the north-east had opened to more pupils in line with government plans.
Primary schools were asked to admit children in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6 from Monday, but a number of councils advised their schools against reopening prematurely while risk assessments continued. Many parents chose to keep their children at home.
According to the NEU, just over a third of primary schools (35%) opened to all the eligible year groups, and just over a fifth (21% ) managed a partial reopening. By the end of this week, an additional 6% of schools will have opened more widely, the poll suggests.
The NEU, with more than 450,000 members, has consistently argued for a later reopening date, when the number of new infections will be lower and the system of testing, tracking and isolation of new cases will have bedded in.
Kevin Courtney, the NEU’s joint general secretary, said the survey was a wake-up call for the government. He said many schools intended to delay wider reopening, some would not be able to admit all suggested year groups, and a number would not take in any further pupils this term beyond the children of key workers and vulnerable children already attending.
“It was always reckless of Boris Johnson to set an arbitrary date and expect schools to fall in line,” Courtney said. “Heads and their staff know far more about their individual challenges than Whitehall ever will. As the regional variation according to coronavirus levels show, schools are listening to the science rather than politicians.
“Not only is the safety of the government’s plan in question but also the feasibility of it and confidence of headteachers in what the prime minister requested.”
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The Department for Education yet to publish any data on pupils returning or schools opening more widely, but it is likely to say the numbers are in line with expectations and that this week is the first step in a gradual return of pupils, with numbers increasing in the coming weeks.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, acknowledged the efforts of school staff to prepare for wider reopening. “I recognise there may continue to be some nervousness among families, but I want to reassure parents – and those working in schools and nurseries – that the welfare of children and staff continues to be at the heart of all of our considerations,” he said.
More than 23,000 NEU members took part in the survey, and one representative from each school was used in the final weighting. In total just under 11,000 schools were covered by the sample, equating to 63% of nursery and primary schools in England.
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