A headteacher’s union is calling for a phased approach to reopening schools in England, which involves older students returning to the classroom first.

The suggestions comes amid warnings that students preparing for exams ‘may need to repeat the whole year’ to make up for lost learning.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said that the students in years 10 and 12 who are in the middle of GCSE and A-Level courses have the most to gain from getting back into schools as soon as possible. The also said an equal benefit would be felt by those in the final years of primary school, preparing to move to secondary.

The debate over when and how schools in England should safely reopen has been growing more fraught recently, with ministers and teaching unions holding very different opinions on what is practical and safe.

Secretary of the ASCL Geoff Barton says that schools may realistically only be able to open after the June half term.

“It can only happen when supported by science, and there will need to be a lead-in time of several weeks to ensure it is carefully planned,” he said.

“It is then going to be necessary to maintain social distancing in schools as much as possible. It is likely that we will need to reintroduce certain year groups in the first instance rather than fully reopening schools to all pupils.

“This could be particularly beneficial for pupil in year 10 and year 12 because they are studying GCSE and A-Level courses respectively, and for pupils in year 6, who are due to go to secondary school in September.”

Pressure to reopen is mounting

Pressure for schools to reopen is mounting, particularly for disadvantaged students, who have been the hardest hit. Former head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw warned that some pupils preparing for exams may have lost so much progress that they may have to redo the whole year.

Meanwhile, some teaching unions believe that opening schools prematurely could present severe health risks to students, school worker and the wider community.

Teaching union NASUWT has written to education secretary Gavin Williamson setting out five conditions for reopening, which would include access to personal protective equipment ranging from soap to gloves, aprons and in some cases face masks, as well as guarantees on adequate staffing and physical distancing advice.

They also asked that teachers will not be expected to clean in order to keep their students and colleagues protected.

The National Education Union (NEU) believes that the science should determine when schools reopen. It currently has a petition with over 160,000 signatures to delay reopening until it is safe to do so.

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said that no date had been set for school to reopen.

“They will remain closed, except for the children of critical workers and the most vulnerable children, until the scientific advice changes and we have met the five tests set out by government to beat this virus,” they said.

“We will work in close consultation with the sector to consider how best to reopen schools, nurseries and colleges when the time is right so that parents, teachers and children have sufficient notice to plan and prepare.”