Teachers should not go to work on June 1 if they feel unsafe, unions say

The two largest teacher unions have told their members that they should not go to work on June 1 if they feel unsafe.

The Prime Minister announced his strategy to end lockdown by asking teachers to prepare for the return of pupils in Reception, Year One and Year Six at the start of next month.

He said that it is the Government’s “ambition” that primary schools will be open for children of all ages by the end of June so they can have one month of lessons before the summer holidays.

But on Tuesday evening the country’s biggest teacher union chiefs criticised Boris Johnson’s plan.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) said it has “serious and fundamental” concerns about the Government’s plans to begin the phased reopening of primary schools next month.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT, described the Department for Education’s advice for schools as “inadequate” and “incomplete”.

Following talks on Tuesday night with Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, Dr Roach said he was left unconvinced that reopening schools on June 1 would be safe.

“No teacher should be expected to go into a school that is not safe and until it can be demonstrated that it is safe to do so and we will be continuing to support and advise members on that basis,” he said. “We are reminding members there is no obligation on any schools to extend their opening arrangements.”  

Dr Roach said that June 1 is “neither a fixed nor hard and fast date” by which all schools must open, adding that there is currently “no requirement or obligation” for schools to reopen then.  

He was joined by Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Education Union, who told his members not to “engage” with plans to reopen schools.  

Trade unions can only call for industrial action if they hold a ballot where the majority of their members vote in favour of a strike.

However, The Telegraph understands the NEU could cite employment laws which states that employees have the individual right to refuse to go into a workplace if they believe there is a “serious and imminent danger”.

“If such a situation does arise in a school or college our members will continue working from home as they have been over the last six weeks,” a spokesman for the union said, adding: “The government has stated that Covid-19 is an imminent danger.”

Meanwhile, headteacher union chiefs told their members that ultimately it was their decision, along with their governing bodies, whether or not to reopen.

The Department for Education (DfE) published detailed guidelines on Monday evening about how primary schools and nurseries should operate when they reopen next month.

Reception, Year One and Year Six pupils should be allowed to return on June 1, the Government said, with the “ambition” that all primary school children will be back in the classroom by the end of the month. 

 Class sizes should be split in half with a 15-pupil limit, and a “one-way system” operated in corridors, the guidelines say.  

The beginning and end of the day will be staggered to avoid congestion at the gates, and surfaces should be regularly cleaned.  

If a child displays coronavirus symptoms and tests positive, the rest of their class, as well as their teacher, would need to self-isolate and would all be offered free tests.  

But some elements of the guidelines were criticised as “absurd”. According to the advice document, schools and nurseries should “remove soft furnishings, soft toys and toys that are hard to clean”.  

Prof Colin Diamond, a former DfE advisor, said that this “feels cruel” adding: “This to me illustrates the absurdity of trying to introduce a safe regime which has to be socially distant. Of course children need cuddly toys and to relax on cushions.

“This is not a very impressive idea. I can’t help but think that whoever wrote the guidance doesn’t know much about a nursery or classroom.”  

The National Association of Headteachers, which is the largest union for primary school leaders, also said that removing soft furniture and toys would be difficult.  

“Early Years settings and classrooms are built around small interactive toys and resources,” a spokesman said. “Removing these entirely, whilst maintaining age appropriate provision, will prove an enormous challenge.”

A DfE spokesman said: “We want children back in schools as soon as it is safe to do so because it is the best place for them to learn and benefit from important social interactions.  

“Plans for a phased return of some year groups from 1 June, at the earliest, have been drawn up in close consultation with the sector and are based on the best scientific and medical advice. The welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making.  

“We have engaged with the unions throughout the past seven weeks and will continue to do so, including to develop further guidance for the sector.”

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