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Education Secretary Pledges To Do "Everything In My Power" To Keep Schools Open As Covid Cases Rise

Nadhim Zahawi said the previous decision to close schools was a "mistake"

4 min read

Nadhim Zahawi has said it was a "mistake" to close schools in response to Covid because of the impact on children's education and mental health.

The Education Secretary has insisted he will resist any efforts to close schools despite rising Covid infections meaning around 200,000 pupils are currently absent from classrooms because of infections.

Speaking on Sunday, Zahawi said the Prime Minister "absolutely agrees" with his ambition to keep pupils in school, saying the closures ordered by his predecessor, Gavin Williamson, were a "mistake".

"The truth is the closure of schools, when I reflect on that, was a mistake and I am on record as saying that," he told Sky's Sophy Ridge.

"I will do everything in my power never again to close schools and the Prime Minister absolutely agrees with me because not just the learning loss, but the mental strain, the anxiety."

But he refused to criticise Williamson for closing schools and cancelling exams for hundreds of thousands of pupils at the height of the pandemic, saying he had "very little choice" but to take the step.

He added: "If you look at what the Children's Commissioner has done on surveying half-a-million children, they said they really wanted to be back at school.

"I was at Totteridge Academy last week, and the children said to me the worst thing that happened to us was being at home and having to learn at home."

Zahawi said that around 99.9% of schools in England were now open, but admitted around 9% of teachers and support staff were off absent due to Covid, while around 200,000 pupils were currently absent because of the infection."We have to keep a very close eye on infection rates in the education system, around 9% of teachers and support staff are absent with schools partly because of Covid. The best way we protect the country as we transition from pandemic to endemic is through vaccination."

"I continue to work with the sector, the frontline, to make sure we continue to keep an eye on what is happening. The great news is, and this is because of teachers and support staff, is 99.9% of schools are open."

He added: "Around 200,000 school children are off school. It has ticked up a little bit because infection rates are high, but we have, if not broken, we have weakened the link between infections rates and severe infection and hospitalisation because of the vaccination."

But he refused to rule out whether further testing could be introduced in schools when the wider free testing scheme comes to an end in April, saying they would "outline the policies" this week.

As part of plans to improve education after the pandemic, around 3,500 schools in England will be told to extend their hours as part of a new white paper set to be published by ministers on Monday.

According to the Sunday Times, Zawahi will announce that all schools will be expected to offer pupils at least 32.5 hours-a-week of teaching by September 2023.

The Education Secretary said the changes to schools would help "transform the fortunes of young people in our country who may not want to go to university."

He said he would be in favour of the upcoming inquiry into the response to the pandemic being expanded to include a focus on schools, saying the inquiry team were still "consulting" on which topics to include.

"I certainly think a focus on the impact on children, especially on their mental well being and of course the educational outcomes is really important," he told the BBC.

"They are consulting on the draft terms of reference ... I think it is important to learn the lessons.

"As Secretary of State for Education, I can tell you the evidence on both the impact on education and health and wellbeing has been substantial which is why I said it was a mistake we closed schools and we have to learn from those mistakes."

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