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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says his ‘door is always open’ amid row with unions over school reopening plan

Teaching unions have raised concerns about the scientific evidence behind the Government’s phased school return plan.

3 min read

The Education Secretary has said his door is “always open” amid a deepening row with teachers’ unions over the Government’s plans to bring children back to school from 1 June.

Gavin Williamson told the daily Downing Street press conference that his department was proceeding “incredibly cautiously” with its plan to ask reception, year one and year six pupils to return from next month.

And he insisted he was “always keen to listen and talk” to unions, who have outlined a string of concerns with the phased proposals.

The comments come after union NASUWT said a meeting with the Government’s chief scientific adviser on Friday had “raised more questions than answers” for teachers' representatives, who have warned that the the evidence behind the plan is "weak". 

NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roache said: “No confirmation was provided that teachers are at low risk of catching the virus following the wider opening of schools.”

And he added: “Nothing in the meeting provided reassurance for the deeply worried and anxious school workforce.”

Speaking at the Number 10 press conference on Saturday, Mr Williamson struck a conciliatory tone, as he said teachers had gone “above and beyond in terms of actually supporting children” during the crisis, including ensuring the kids of key workers were educated during bank holidays and the Easter break.

“Every teacher I’ve ever spoken to understands absolutely clearly that actually a child in school, especially if they’re from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds, from some of the poorest backgrounds, they achieve so much more by being in school," he said.

“They absolutely thrive, they get so much more from life.”

And the Cabinet minister said: “Not just to unions, but to all organisations that represent schools and governors: my door is always open. 

“I’m always keen to listen and talk to them. I’ve been meeting both representative organisations of school groups, but also unions every single week. 

“Not just during - since the schools were closed - but actually beforehand as well. 

“And I always want to talk - we want to find practical solutions to make sure that those children from that most disadvantaged background don’t lose out as a result of this crisis. 

“And I hope everyone is unified in that mission to deliver that.”

Responding the press conference, NASUWT said it "welcomes the Secretary of State’s commitment to discuss a way forward which will help to ensure that schools can reopen safely to more children".

But Dr Roach said: “It is urgently important that the Government takes every available opportunity to provide the necessary assurances that teachers are seeking.

“It should not be forgotten that teachers have continued to look after vulnerable children and children of critical workers whilst also providing high quality support for remote learning for those children who are at home.

“Schools are looking to the Government for clear and unequivocal guidance on the health and safety measures they will need to have in place prior to reopening.

“The bottom line is that no teacher or child should be expected to go into schools until it can be demonstrated that it is safe for them to do so.”

'SQUABBLE'

Mr Williamson’s comments come after the Children’s Commissioner for England urged unions and ministers to set aside their differences and come up with a plan to get kids back into school.

Anne Longfield said: “I am disappointed that the debate about when some primary school kids can return has descended into a squabble between government and the teaching unions.”

And she added: "All sides need to show a greater will to work together in the interests of children."

The Government is proposing to bring back some primary school pupils in June “at the earliest”.

Class sizes will be capped at 15 under plans to limit the spread of the coronavirus, while children could be asked to attend “a nearby school” if their usual place of learning “cannot achieve” the small group sizes specified.

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