Primary schools will not reopen to all pupils before summer holidays, Gavin Williamson confirms
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson
Plans to get all primary aged children back in school before the summer holidays have been scrapped by the Government.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told the Commons initial plans for all primary pupils to spend four weeks in school before the end of the academic year in July would no longer go ahead, but that teachers would instead be given “flexibility” on whether to admit more children.
“We continue to follow the best scientific advice and believe that this cautious phased return is the most sensible course of action to take,” he told MPs on Tuesday.
“While we are not able to welcome all primary children for a full month before the summer, we continue to work with the sector on the next steps where we’d like to see schools who have the capacity to bring back more children in those smaller class sizes.
“To do so, if they are able to do, before the summer holidays.”
Schools were given the green light to allow children in reception, year one and year six back into the classroom from June 1, alongside those of keyworkers. Figures show around 52% of schools that normally accept those year groups were open in the last week.
But union chiefs feared it was too early and raised concerns about staff’s ability to protect themselves from a heightened risk of contracting Covid-19.
Ministers are not planning to change guidelines on class sizes or social distancing, but schools with additional space to admit more pupils can do so at their discretion.
Mr Williamson said it is the Government’s aim to get all children back to school in September, but Number 10 was reluctant to make promises on Tuesday, saying it would “expect more schools to be open to pupils but we will continue to take a cautious approach and to be guided by the advice”.
Asked if pupils would be available to attend during the summer to catch up, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We’re looking at what more might be needed to affect pupils supported by closures and when there’s more to say we’ll do so.”
Mr Williamson said students due to take exams next year “will have experienced considerable disruption to their education this year”.
“We are committed to doing all we can to minimise the effects of this,” he added.
“We all know how important it is for children and young people to be in education and childcare. And it is vital that we get them back there as soon the scientific advice indicates that we can.
“I’m very pleased that last week we were able to take the first cautious step towards that. As the PM confirmed on May 28, the government’s five tests are being met and we’re beginning to ease the lockdown restrictions across England.”
The Education Secretary said he was aware of the concerns of schools in areas including the North West, where the rate of coronavirus infection is reportedly higher.
“I can assure them that Sage’s R estimate for the whole of the UK is below one,” he added.
“If robust data shows that local action needs to be taken we will not hesitate to do so, but we are not in that position.”
Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said children were “in danger of being forgotten in lifting this lockdown” as the Government prioritises kick-starting the economy.
“We are seeing a situation where theme parks are going to be reopening in a month’s time, shops, pubs, restaurants, but still children not back in school,” she told the BBC’s Today programme.
“It will take an enormous challenge but it needs to be Government’s number one priority now.”
The Children’s Commissioner said the same level of will and determination that had been put into boosting NHS capacity and savings jobs needed to be shown to get youngsters back into the classroom.
“Children’s education does matter as much as the economy,” she added.
“We need to invest in it because without that there’s a risk that childhood is just going to be furloughed.”
Shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey told the Commons headteachers, education unions, school staff and parents had been warning "for weeks" that plans to fully reopen before the summer were "simply impractical".
"Now it is imperative that the Government looks ahead to what the education system needs over the coming months and years," she said.
"Children and young people’s education and wellbeing will have been impacted cruelly by such a long period away from school, their friends and the situation at home may have been extremely stressful.”
The Labour frontbencher added: “Like the [Children's] Commissioner I believe a crisis in education and children’s attainment and wellbeing could come incredibly quickly if we do not step in and mitigate it now. There needs to be a national plan on education.”