A million children in England – half of those who are expected to return when their classes reopen – are likely to stay at home on Monday rather than go back to school, as many parents, councils and teachers remain sceptical of the government’s assurances over their safety.
Boris Johnson’s government has invested considerable political capital in opening classrooms to primary school pupils in three year groups – reception, year 1 and year 6 – leading to warnings by independent scientists that it is too soon to reopen while transmission and infection rates remain so high.
While most of England’s 18,000 primary schools will open to more pupils from Monday, a large majority of headteachers say they are not able to accommodate all three year groups, in some cases for the remainder of the school year.
According to a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research, primary school leaders expect that 47% of families will keep their children home, with the proportion rising to 50% among pupils eligible for free school meals.
With more than 2 million children in England in reception, year 1 and year 6 classes, about 1 million are likely to stay at home when schools open to pupils other than those of key workers and those in care or having a social worker.
In an effort to encourage parents to return their children to school, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “While there might be some nervousness, I want to reassure parents and teachers that the welfare of children and staff continues to be the heart of all of our considerations.”
Williamson said the government’s five tests for the safe lifting of the lockdown had been met, and claimed that it had “reviewed all the evidence” before reopening schools to more pupils.
However, since the end of last week a number of leading scientists, including some who sit on the government’s advisory Sage panels, have said that it is too soon for the UK’s lockdown to be lifted because Covid-19 infection continues to spread in the community.
Steve Reed, Labour’s shadow communities secretary, said: “All of us want to see schools open, but it has to be done in a gradual way that maintains parents’ confidence that it’s safe for their child to go back.”
The NFER survey found that disadvantaged families and those living in the north of England were the most reluctant to return their children to school.
Schools with high numbers of families eligible for free school meals expected 50% of pupils to stay away, compared with 42% in schools with the least disadvantaged children. Meanwhile, schools in the north-west of England expected half of their families to keep children at home, compared with 41% on average for schools in the south-west.
“Schools with a high proportion of free school meal children were the most affected before lockdown and expect fewer children to return, adding to concerns about their loss of learning,” said Carole Willis, the NFER’s chief executive.
“There needs to be very clear messages and reassurance for parents, as well as a continued focus on the quality of remote learning.”
The NFER’s findings backed up a new straw poll taken by the National Association of Head Teachers, which found that just 12% of school leaders said they would be able to accommodate all of the children allowed back on Monday.
More than 10% of headteachers said they would not be able to reopen to more pupils either this week or next week, and the remaining 78% said they would only be able to take a smaller number of children, or would be rotating classes between different days.
A number of councils remain opposed to the government’s 1 June reopening, including some on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. Conservative-controlled Lancashire county council advised its schools not to reopen, saying that the government’s test and trace programme “is not at a state of readiness to respond to Covid-19 community setting outbreaks in a timely manner.
“Furthermore, we are not confident that adjustments to the current measures of the lockdown policy will not risk a second peak of infections locally.”
Meanwhile, Brighton and Hove city council, which has more Green party than Conservative councillors, also advised its schools not to reopen for the same reasons.
The Church of England’s Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham also made a late decision not to reopen its 65 primary schools on the grounds of safety concerns raised by staff unions.
“While we very much want as many children in school as possible, it’s so important to do this the right way,” Nigel Frith, the diocesean director of education, wrote to parents.
The decision was attacked by Ben Bradley, the Tory MP for Mansfield, who accused the diocese of “bowing to union pressure”.
Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, provided little reassurance at Sunday’s afternoon press conference to parents when she dismissed the chances of public playgrounds reopening.
Harries said park playgrounds remained risky because of the danger of transmission when children from “multiple households” meet. “It’s not a good place to be at the moment so I think not in the immediate future,” she said.
The wider opening only applies to schools in England – schools in Wales will not reopen on Monday but Kirsty Williams, the Welsh education minister, is to make a further announcement this week.
Schools in Northern Ireland and Scotland will not widely reopen until the end of the summer holidays, although in Scotland preschool children in nursery classes and pupils in P7, the final year of primary school, could return on 15 June in some areas.