Commenting on the National Education Union’s expectations of a meeting with Government scientists later today to examine the safety of a wider opening of schools, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:

"There are important scientific questions that need to be addressed, and we will listen to what the Government’s scientists have to say. We want to hear what the science is. We want to know how much children transmit to one another and to adults. We also want to know what the risk is for society as a whole, and whether they now have contact tracing running well enough so that it can keep the case count low and hold it there. 

"It's really important that we are absolutely clear what the level of safety is and if it remains the case that we believe it to be unsafe, we will not back the wider opening of schools. 

"We want to get back to wider school opening as soon as it is safe to do. Most schools are open at the moment and have been open since lockdown began, for the benefit of children of key workers and the most vulnerable children in our society. Our members care deeply about the children they teach.

"It was a complete shock to my union and every other union when the Prime Minister announced on Sunday that he intends to re-open Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from June 1st. The Government has not engaged with us at all on this, nor the notion of class sizes of 15 pupils. Classrooms in very many schools are often so small it is an impossibility to sustain social distancing with that number.

"Yesterday the Office of National Statistics said that age does not affect the likelihood of being infected with Covid-19. This should set off alarm bells for Government. It stokes fears that they have no real sense of the dangers posed by the wider opening of schools, to a spike in transmission through asymptomatic children coming in regular contact with adults. The science on this remains unclear. (1)

"Nor will anyone be reassured by the performance of the Department for Education's chief scientific adviser, Osama Rahman, who appeared clueless in front of the Commons Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday. We cannot be confident that Government is being 'led by the science' when the senior adviser who is closest to schools is so clearly in the dark.

"School workers have never been more united. The National Education Union has had 7,500 new members since Sunday, and 100,000 responses to a survey in just 48 hours. Their message is our message, and it is clear: members want to and will get back to school, but only when it is safe.

"Head teachers, many of whom are represented by the NEU, agree with us. 10,000 heads have signed our petition to only open schools when it is safe to do so. The same petition now has 400,000 signatures in all, including over 50,000 support staff and thousands of health workers. (2)

"Parents also agree with us. Parentkind has backed our five tests (3), and a Deltapoll survey of parents shows massive support for our position. They want extensive arrangements for testing and contact tracing. They want personal protective equipment for school staff. They want to see the scientific evidence and modelling to prove the case for wider opening. One third of parents say they will not return their children to school until they have reason to be confident. (4)

"Our five tests are responsible and sensible. The Government must pass them all. We need to know that the wider opening of schools is safe for parents and for children, for teachers, heads and school staff, and for the wider community."


Editor's note

  1. ONS.
  2. Petition
  3. Parentkind/NEU letter to DfE
  4. Parents survey.