Government abandons plans to fully reopen primary schools before end of term

  • Video report by Political Correspondent Dan Hewitt

The government has abandoned its plans to fully reopen primary schools before the end of term, the education secretary has announced.

The plan had been for all remaining primary age pupils to return to school, for a month before the summer holidays, to join Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils, many of whom went back on June 1.

"While we are not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer, we continue to work with the sector on the next steps, where we'd like to see school's who have the capacity, to bring back more children in those smaller class sizes, if they are able to do before the summer holidays," Gavin Williamson said.

He said the government "will be working to bring all children back to school in September".

From June 15 the government plans for secondary schools to provide "some face-to-face support" for years 10 and 12.

Social distancing guidance limiting class sizes to 15 pupils will not be altered.

For schools which are open, all staff and children, including the under-fives, will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus, the education secretary announced.

The government appears to have bowed to pressure from teachers, unions, councils, politicians and parents, many of which have voiced concern over the plan.

Labour shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said she raised concerns "over three weeks ago" and wishes the government had "come to this decision a lot sooner".

"Myself and others highlighted the impracticality of trying to implement safety measures and social distancing for a few year groups, and then potentially throwing it out the window two weeks later when you move to a wider reopening of schools.

"The government's had three weeks to get its house in order and consider the facts that really this was never going to happen."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said his union is "pleased to see the government will not force the impossible", the Guardian reported.

Amid reports the coronavirus reproduction rate (R value) had tipped over one in the North West, many councils had already said they would not allow their schools to reopen.

The R value is crucial for scientists recommending relaxation of lockdown - if the value is below one, experts can be sure the virus is in decline.

Mr Williamson denied the figure was above one and said ministers "will not hesitate" to act if tips over in local areas.

“Some schools in areas such as the North West are concerned about local rates of transmission.

“I can assure them that Sage’s R estimate for the whole of the UK is below one.

“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.”

Health officials at Blackburn and Darwen Council, which runs 85 schools in Lancashire, emailed local schools on Friday evening advising them not to reopen on Monday morning.

The same advice has been given by public health officials in Tameside, Greater Manchester, to delay reopening for pupils other than vulnerable children and those of key workers, to June 22.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's initial plan for a "phased" reopening of primary schools, beginning on June 1, was met with scepticism by parents.

Despite government advising primary schools to reopen to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils on June 1, just half of them did, official government figures show.

Department for Education (DfE) figures show that 52% of education settings that normally accept at least one of these year groups were open to additional children on June 4.

Current public health advice recommends that “all schools can open” but the Government is prepared to shut “clusters” of schools if new Covid-19 cases develop, Mr Williamson told MPs.

Mr Williamson said it was "encouraging to see the majority" of primary schools reopen, but the pupil attendance rate in nursery and primary schools was 11% on Thursday last week.

It shows that most parents did not believe it was appropriate to send their children back to school.

Some 'key year' pupils are already in schools. Credit: PA

Mr Williamson acknowledged many parents "feel anxious" about sending their children back but said "the welfare of children and staff will continue to be at the heart of all our decisions".

"Families should also be reassured by the incredible work teachers and support staff are doing to adapt their settings and routines, while making sure schools and nurseries remain as welcoming as they have always been."

Matt Hancock hinted at Monday's coronavirus press conference that secondary schools may not be able to reopen until after September.

He said September was the "current working plan" but admitted it would take "ingenuity" in order to make it safe.

Downing Street said secondary schools were expected to open to “more pupils” in England from September.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Our approach to schools throughout has been that we need to be cautious and the return needs to be phased.

“That will continue to be our approach.”