Keir Starmer has told teachers not to take industrial action over the government’s back-to-school plan and suggested they might have to give up some of their holidays to provide catch-up lessons.
Speaking on Monday the Labour leader said unions were right to “stick up for their members”, acknowledging that teachers had been put under “stress and strain” during the pandemic.
But he said he did not support mooted industrial action over safety concerns, after nine teaching unions warned it would be “reckless” to open schools at all once on 8 March.
Speaking on LBC radio Sir Keir expressed concerns that children were falling behind, having previously urged the government to open schools as quickly as possible.
Asked whether teachers could be drafted in during the summer to help children catch up, he said: “That may be possible.
“Again, schools staff have been working around the clock. Remember, this time last year they were preparing to work through the Easter break and they’ll probably end up doing that again.
“So they do need a break. There needs to be a long-term plan to catch-up because the attainment gap has got bigger over this pandemic – it was bad enough before it.
“We need a long-term plan for catch-up, but we do need to give credit to teachers and school staff. We need to think of how we do catch-up and close the attainment gap.”
On Friday nine unions – the Association of School and College Leaders, GMB, National Association of Head Teachers, NASUWT, National Education Union, National Governance Association, Sixth Form Colleges’ Association, Unison, and Unite – all warned the government to be cautious on opening schools.
They said they did not stand in the way of reopening schools but that they were “increasingly concerned that the government is minded to order a full return of all pupils on Monday 8 March in England”, branding it a “reckless course of action”.
The unions say the science around the role of schools in transmitting Covid-19 is “uncertain” and that it would be better to have a phase reopening to avoid starting another wave of infections. They stress they are not against the reopening of schools.
The unions have not yet formally threatened strike action, but organisers have said the threat of a stoppage helped delay unsafe reopenings last year.
Asked whether he would support potential industrial action by teachers, Sir Keir said: “I don’t think there should be industrial action, but the teaching unions are right to stick up for their members who have been through a really hard time in the last 12 months.
“The stop-start stalling they’ve been obviously in school for key workers, and there’s been a lot of stress and strain on teachers and school staff and they feel they haven’t been listened to by the government.
“I think Gavin Williamson had to get on the phone to the trade unions and tell them what his plan is so everybody can get around the plan to get our children back to school as soon as possible.”