A cabinet minister today refused four times to rule out penalties on local education authorities that are threatening to boycott moves to start reopening schools from June 1.
Mr Dowden, whose wife is a teacher, told Sky News: “I hope that we can all continue to work together as one nation. I think if we can get children back to school, and it’s safe to do so, then we should really try to do so.”
But asked repeatedly whether councils like Liverpool, which say they may decline to open schools altogether, would be penalised, he said: “We are working with them to try and ensure that doesn’t happen.”
On penalties, he added: “I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Pressed again what would happen if talks fail, he said: “I don’t want to speculate on that at this stage.”
Pressure was mounting on the unions to come to an agreement to prevent millions of pupils missing six months of lessons.
Experts said disadvantaged children would suffer most of all if they were denied classroom time until the autumn, while poorer families would endure the greatest hardship because parents in manual occupations are least able to work from home.
The Government is proposing a “phased” back to school next month beginning with children in reception, Year 1 and Year 6. Pupils will be cocooned in smaller classes with staggered start times and lunch breaks to limit the spread of the virus.
The National Education Union, which has 450,000 members, called the plans “reckless”. However, eight former education secretaries have weighed in with calls for schools to go back for the sake of the children, including Labour heavyweights Lord Blunkett, Alan Johnson and Charles Clarke.
The Church of England and the mental health charity Mind have also issued warnings about the impact on children of being isolated instead of learning.
Culture Secretary Mr Dowden said his own daughter was in Year 6 adding: “It’d be great for her to be able to get back to school before she makes that transition to secondary school.
“Similarly kids in reception and in Year 1, they’re just starting out, really, in those early years learning the reading and the writing and getting some routines important. If we are able to do it, we should do it.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said teachers wanted more clarification on whether schools are centres of transmission.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that unions were waiting for scientific evidence to justify the Government assertions that risks were lower than feared.
“I want to invite the Government today to write to me so that I can talk to the 31,000 school leaders that we represent, particularly in the primary sector, and say this is why the Government has made that assessment.”
The Government was backed by two new scientific studies, according to reports. Children are “not the primary drivers of Covid-19 spread” in schools, according to research in Australia, an unnamed member of the Government’s Sage subcommittee on schools told The Daily Telegraph.
A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that pupils from the wealthiest families will have done seven full school days’ worth of extra home learning by June 1, because affluent families had better facilities.
The IFS warned of a widening attainment gap between rich and poor. Chief executives of 22 academy trusts warn schools must reopen soon to avoid “irreparable” damage to vulnerable children.