Gavin Williamson: Teaching unions must ‘do their duty’ and ‘get children back to school’
The Education Secretary said “the safety of children and their teachers is my No 1 priority” (PA)
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said that teaching unions have a “duty” to back government plans to reopen schools.
Writing in the Daily Mail, the Cabinet minister said it was “in the interests of [children’s] welfare and education” to get them back in the classroom.
He also insisted he was following scientific advice on the matter, adding that “the safety of children and their teachers is my No 1 priority”.
The intervention comes amid an ongoing row between the Government and unions over plans to send some pupils back to school from 1 June.
Schools and teachers have roundly rejected the plan, arguing that it is not safe to bring children back until the national test and trace scheme is rolled out.
Meanwhile teaching union NASUWT has threatened to begin legal action if teachers are forced to return to work.
According to The Guardian, the organisation has written to local authorities claiming school staff have a legal right to refuse to return to work when classes resume.
But Mr Williamson said: “As Education Secretary, I pay attention when experts give me advice – I’d get into hot water very quickly if I didn’t.
“If, based on the latest scientific advice, we can get a limited number of children back to school, then I believe it’s my duty to do all I can to get them back there because being in school with a teacher is the best way to learn.”
He added: “I know some teaching unions still have concerns, just as I know parents and teachers have some worries.
“I intend to carry on talking to all of them and working with them on any issues they may have.
“All of us in education have a duty to work together to get children back to school.”
Mr Williamson also revealed that union leaders are set to meet with the Government's Chief Medical Officer on Friday so they can be briefed on the scientific advice underpinning the Governemnt's decisions.
Under current plans, schools would reopen for children in reception, year one and year six, with class sizes capped at 15.
Children could also be sent to a “nearby school” if their usual place of learning “cannot achieve” the small group sizes specified, new guidance suggests.
But unions have warned these measures do not go far enough to ensure social distancing and could mean schools become sources of coronavirus transmission.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Trades Union Congress said: “The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, sibling and relatives, and to the wider community.
“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."
The message was backed by teacher and staff unions including the GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, Unison and Unite.