Teaching unions appear to have succeeded in forcing another government U-turn, this time in relation to face masks in secondary schools.
The government yielded to pressure on Tuesday evening and ditched earlier guidance against using face masks in secondary schools after hundreds of head teachers pushed for their adoption.
Areas (such as Greater Manchester) that are subject to new lockdowns due to recent COVID-19 outbreaks will now mandate the wearing of face masks for secondary school pupils in school corridors and other zones where social distancing is more difficult to regulate.
Head teachers in areas of England that are relatively COVID-free and therefore not subject to the stricter restrictions will have discretion over whether to instruct students to wear face masks.
However, the government has abandoned its earlier advice against making face masks in secondary schools compulsory.
The move follows a similar new mandate from the Scottish government requiring secondary school children to wear masks on school buses and in school communal areas.
The measure comes just days before millions of children will re-enter their schools in England after they were closed in March due to the pandemic.
While head teachers have broadly welcomed the new guidance, some Tory MPs have been critical of another government volte-face.
Conservative MP Huw Merriman told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the change sent “the wrong message” by implying that “schools are not a safe setting”.
When probed over whether the new decision was a capitulation to political pressure from the Labour Party and teaching unions, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson insisted that the government was “listening to the latest medical and scientific advice”.
Following the announcement, the Department for Education issued a statement declaring that for most areas of England, the original advice against using face masks will still stand.
Schools will, however, be permitted to reach their own decisions on whether to require students and staff to wear them in communal areas, where social distancing is more difficult to manage.
Classrooms will remain mask-free zones as protective measures in these settings have already reduced the risk of transmission to a minimum.
However, the guidelines warn of “stricter guidance” at a later date if the COVID-19 transmission rate begins to climb across the country.
Williamson maintained that at present, there were no plans to make face masks mandatory in schools located outside local lockdown areas.
The demands of the head teachers for mandatory mask-wearing follows new advice from the World Health Organisation.
As of last week, the body is recommending that pupils aged 12 and over should follow the same face-covering rules as adults.
Geoff Barton, the leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union, said that his members would “welcome the flexibility” granted by the new advice.
However, the move risks triggering a significant backlash from Conservative MPs, a number of whom have publicly challenged Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to bow to pressure to change advice in England.
One MP told the Guardian that requiring pupils to wear masks in schools went “way too far”.
Conservative backbencher Marcus Fysh said: “Masks should be banned in schools. The country should be getting back to normal not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff.
“It is time to end the fear. And keep it away from our kids thank you very much.”