The culture secretary has not ruled out serving penalties on local education authorities that refuse to reopen schools next month as lockdown restrictions ease.

Hertsmere MP Oliver Dowden told Sky News that the Government wanted to work with teachers and unions over their “legitimate concerns” of pupils going back to school.

Earlier this month Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined plans for primary schools to welcome back children in nursery, reception, Year 1, and Year 6 from June 1.

But this has been met with concerns from unions and councils - with Liverpool, Hartlepool, Rochdale and Stockport councils having told parents that primary schools they control will not be reopening to children, according to the Financial Times.

However, Mr Dowden told Sky News that he hoped “we can all continue to work together as one nation”.

He added: “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 if regions could be penalised for declining the Government’s plans, Mr Dowden said: "We are working with them to try and ensure that doesn't happen and to address those concerns.”

When pressed again about penalties, Mr Dowden said: "I really hope that it doesn't come to that."

The latest guidance from education unions advises teachers and support staff to ask dozens of questions about safety before schools decide to open their doors to more pupils next month,.

The joint guidelines, for teachers and support staff, says two-metre social distancing must be maintained in schools.

A planning guide - from the National Education Union (NEU), Unite, Unison and GMB - says it seems "extremely unlikely" that the circumstances nationally will allow a wider reopening of schools on June 1.

However, guidance issued by the Department for Education (DfE) last week acknowledged that young children could not be expected to remain two metres apart from each other and staff.

Instead, the Government advice said primary school class sizes should be limited to 15 pupils - and these small "consistent" groups should be kept from mixing with other pupils and staff during the day.

But the guidelines from the unions calls on head teachers to maintain social distancing in classrooms, and in movement around the school, and operate in a similar way to other workplaces.

It says: "This means that leaders must determine the numbers of pupils they admit according to maintaining social distancing of 2 metres between pupils and between pupils and school staff.

"The number of children in each class must be calculated accordingly. In most classrooms this will mean fewer than 15 children present at one time."