A government minister has not ruled out penalising regions in England if they refuse to reopen schools as the coronavirus lockdown is eased.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told Sky News ministers wanted to work in a “constructive way” with teachers and unions to address their “legitimate concerns” about pupils returning to the classroom.
Under plans to ease the COVID-19 lockdown outlined by Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month, there will be a staged reopening of primary schools from 1 June.
But opposition has been expressed to the plans, particularly from unions and some councils, amid a continuing row over whether or not it is safe for pupils to return.
Hartlepool and Liverpool councils have said they will not reopen schools next month.
Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson has said he would only allow teachers and children to return to school when it was “safe to do so”, while Labour leader of Gateshead Council, Martin Gannon, said the easing of the lockdown rules was “frankly madness”.
Asked if regions could be penalised for refusing to go along with the government’s easing of lockdown, Mr Dowden told Kay [email protected]: “We are working with them to try and ensure that doesn’t happen and to address those concerns.
“It’s in the children’s interest to get them back to school and I hope that we can address the concerns that they have.”
Pressed again on the prospect of sanctions, the minister responded: “I really hope that it doesn’t come to that.”
Reacting to the culture secretary’s comments, Liverpool City Region metro mayor Steve Rotheram said councils have “little power over schools because of the fragmentation of the education system”.
He described the prospect of potential fines as “just more punitive measures from a government that doesn’t really understand when it announces things in Downing Street they have a profound effect in areas like ours”.
There were talks between union representatives and the government’s scientific advisers designed to provide reassurances about the government’s plans.
But a breakthrough appeared to be a remote prospect, with union leaders saying the meeting had raised more questions than answers.
The British Medical Association has said schools should not reopen until the numbers of coronavirus cases were “much lower”.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also yet to set a timetable for schools reopening.
But there was a boost for ministers when the Association of School and College Leaders said it would be advising schools to begin reopening from 1 June.
Its general secretary Geoff Barton said the body had been “reassured” by Friday’s discussions.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson sought to reassure parents and teachers when he led Saturday’s daily coronavirus briefing.
He said the government’s plans were based on the “best scientific advice”.
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