Gavin Williamson announces reopening of primary schools
In a huge shift on the planned reopening, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told the House of Commons all pupils in exam years will return to secondary schools in England from January 11. The remainder of secondary and college students will go back full-time on January 18. Only vulnerable children and children of key workers will receive face-to-face teaching during the first week of the new school term next month.
The update comes after the Government faced huge pressure to delay the return of pupils after the Christmas break in a bid to stem soaring coronavirus infections.
Mr Williamson told MPs: “All pupils in exam years are to return during the week beginning January 11 with all secondary school and college students returning full time on January 18.
“During the first week of term on or after January 4, secondary schools and colleges will prepare to test as many staff and students as possible and will only be open to vulnerable children and children of key workers.
“The 1,500 military personnel committed to supporting schools and colleges will remain on task providing virtual training and advice on establishing the testing process with teams on standby to provide in-person support if required by schools.
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School closures: Gavin Williamson updated MPs in the House of Commons
“Testing will then begin the following week in earnest with those who are in exam years at the head of the queue.
“This is in preparation for the full return of all pupils in all year groups on January 18 in most areas.”
Mr Williamson began by telling MPs in the Commons the government must make an “immediate adjustment” to its plans to reopen all schools in January.
In a statement, he said: “We must always act swiftly when circumstances change. The evidence about the new Covid variant and rising infection rates have required some immediate adjustment to our plans for the new term.”
The Education Secretary the Government must make an ‘immediate adjustment’ to its plans to reopen all schools in January
The Education Secretary added: “The latest study we have from Public Health England is that Covid infections among children are triggered by changes in the community rate. The study also says that the wider impact of school closures on children’s development would be significant.
“I’m quite clear that we must continue to do all we can to keep children in school.”
Mr Williamson told the Commons it was a “last resort” that some schools needed to close in areas of England where coronavirus infection rates are at their highest.
He added: “We’ll be opening the majority of primary schools as planned on Monday, January 4. We know how vitally important it is for younger children to be in school for their education, wellbeing and wider development.”
Michael Gove says secondary schools will have ‘later return’
“In a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest we will implement our existing contingency framework such as only vulnerable children and children of critical workers will attend face to face.
“We will publish this list of areas today on the GOV.UK website. I’d like to emphasise that this is being used only as a last resort. This is not all Tier 4 areas and that the overwhelming majority of primary schools will open as planned on Monday.
The Education Secretary continued: “We’re also asking universities to reduce the number of students who return to campus at the start of January, prioritising students who require practical learning to gain their professional qualifications.
“All university students should be offered two rapid tests on return in order to reduce the chance of spread of Covid.”
Mr Williamson added the Government expects to deliver 50,000 devices to schools throughout England on January 4 to support remote and online learning,
This means some 100,000 devices in total will be delivered during the first week of the new school term.
School closures: Coronavirus cases have surged throughout the UK in recent days
But the announcement from Mr Williamson immediately came under fierce attack from the Labour Party.
Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green told the Commons: “This delay and disruption to children’s education is a direct result of the Government’s failure.
“They’ve lost control of the virus, now they’re losing control of children’s education.”
Ms Green added there is a consensus in Westminster that the best place for children is in school but claimed the Government has “failed to give schools the support they need to make that happen”.
Shadow Minister for Schools Wes Streeting tweeted: “Some primary schools will be closed in Tier 4 with NO date to reopen but secondary schools in the SAME areas have a deadline to re open?! How does this make sense?
“The first thing that parents will be doing following this statement is looking online to see if their schools are open.
“The list isn’t yet online. For crying out loud.”
Shadow Further Education and Universities Minister Emma Hardy tweeted: “Why announce in parliament that some schools will not open as ‘normal’ and fail to provide a list on which schools are impacted!
“What a total shambles.”
The Government also came under attack from education and teachers associations.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said: “This is another last-minute mess which could so easily have been avoided if the Government had listened to school leaders before the holidays.
“Instead, back then, schools which wanted to shift to remote learning were threatened with legal action.
“Now we have a situation where the Government is instructing schools to reduce the amount of teaching time available.
“If we’d had the freedom to take action before the holidays, we might have been in a position to have more schools open for more pupils. School leaders will be baffled, frustrated and justifiably angry tonight.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said she was “astonished” at the announcement from Mr Williamson.
She said: “With warnings from eminent scientists of an ‘imminent catastrophe’ unless the whole of the UK is locked down, and with more cases in hospitals than ever before and our NHS facing an enormous crisis, the Secretary of State is sending the majority of primary pupils and staff back on Monday to working environments which aren’t Covid secure.
“The Government has not, despite being repeatedly asked, published the scientific guidance on the risks involved in school and college reopening. This information is desperately needed – particularly as the new variants of the virus are 50% more transmissible.
“The Government in Scotland will not reopen schools till 18 January at the earliest. The Government in Westminster should have done that at least.
“A longer period of online working for all primary, secondary and college students could suppress virus levels and buy time both for the roll-out of the vaccine and to put in place measures that can keep schools safer.
“Uniquely school and college staff are being required to work in overcrowded buildings, with no effective social distancing, no PPE and inadequate ventilation.”
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