As Boris Johnson attempts to move attention back to his pre-coronavirus election agenda, one of the biggest blockers that remains is the failure to get all pupils back to school. Having revised down a previous ambition to get all primary school children in the classroom before the summer holidays, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson held a press conference on Thursday to explain how – with 'concrete determination' – he would get everyone back in September.
Under new government guidelines, groups of children will be separated by their class or year into 'bubbles' thereby minimising contacts between them. Within each bubble there will be normal interaction but different bubbles will avoid contact in school – with different groups given different starting, finishing, lunch and break times. Big group events such as school assemblies are on hold. Should infections arise, there will be test and trace in place. Schools could also be closed at short notice – two confirmed cases within 14 days could be counted as an outbreak.
Williamson described the measures when taken together as a 'system of control' to 'minimise the risk'. But it won't be up to parents to assess how much risk they are willing for their child to take – attendance will be compulsory with fines for families who refuse. Even with an order for all children to return, the government is braced for patchy attendance in the beginning – with repeated polling showing parents are hesitant about a return.
Ministers expect a battle on their hands from parents, teachers and the unions in the build-up to the return. While the National Education Union has not fully opposed the proposals, it has said the plans are 'more based on hope than science'. A small ray of light for Williamson arrived in the form of new shadow education secretary Kate Green who said she supports the general aim to reintroduce compulsory school attendance in September. Given pupils returning to school is viewed as vital in government both to restarting the economy and pupil education, this is a fight Williamson cannot afford to lose.