Gavin Williamson has said “we owe it to the children” to get students in England back to school as the government remained locked in a stand-off with teaching unions.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street briefing on Saturday, the education secretary insisted that proposals for the phased return of schools were based on the “best scientific advice with children at the very heart of everything we do”.
It comes after the British Medical Association expressed support for the teaching unions, warning against risking a second spike in infections.
Ministers have faced strong resistance after announcing plans this week for a phased reopening of nurseries and primary schools on June 1.
An hour-long meeting between union leaders and the government’s scientific advisers broke up on Friday having failed to satisfy teachers’ safety concerns.
Mr Williamson said: “There are some who would like to delay the wider opening of schools but there is a consequence to this.
“The longer that schools are closed the more children miss out. Teachers know this. Teachers know that there are children out there that have not spoken or played with another child of their own age for two months.
“They know there are children from difficult or very unhappy homes for whom school is the happiest moment in their week and it’s also the safest place for them to be.”
The government issued advice last Monday that nurseries could bring back all children, while primary schools would take back children in reception, Year 1 and Year 6, with children in small classrooms observing social distancing modelled on practice in Denmark.
Secondary schools, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges were advised to start “some face-to-face” contact with pupils in Years 10 and 12 who will sit GCSE exams and A-levels next year, but there was no immediate expectation they would return full time.
Anne Longfield, England’s children’s commissioner, has urged the ministers and unions to “stop squabbling” so schools can open “as quickly as possible”.
Speaking on Saturday, she called for both parties to agree to “a safe, phased return” of schools. “I am disappointed that the debate about when some primary school kids can return has descended into a squabble between government and the teaching unions,” she said.
“All sides need to show a greater will to work together in the interests of children. We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school.”