Plans outlined for 'mandatory' return to schools in England with 'class or year sized bubbles' and rapid testing

Video report by ITV News Correspondent John Ray

Pupils across England are set for a "mandatory" return to schools in September, the education secretary has announced, with children being restricted to "class or year sized bubbles" and teachers being told to overhaul the curriculum to "address gaps in knowledge".

With the reintroduction of mandatory attendance, parents could be fined if they do not send their children back to school at the start of the autumn term.

The plans have been laid out for a full return after up to six months away on the same day schools in Leicester close again as part of the city’s lockdown extension.

To allow for a full reopening of schools, colleges and nurseries in September, restrictions on group sizes will be lifted and but a mixing of year groups – such as in assemblies – will be banned.

Video report by ITV News Political Reporter Shehab Khan

Schools will be asked to keep pupils in "class or year sized bubbles" and encourage older children and staff to "keep their distance from each other" where possible.

School buses could also be segregated to ensure pupils remained in their “bubbles” to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Contingency plans must also be in place in case of a local lockdown and schools will be required to liaise with their local health protection team if there are two or more confirmed coronavirus cases within a fortnight.

Where there is a case of Covid-19 at a school or college, Public Health England will advise the best course of action, which could include a 14-day period of self isolation for small groups of young people and staff.

Kevin Courtney from the National Education Union gives his verdict on the government's plans

Where there are two or more confirmed cases in a two-week period, a "larger number" of children may be asked to self-isolate at home as a "precautionary measure".

Schools will be provided with a "small number of home testing kits" which children with symptoms will be able to take home if they have difficulty accessing testing centres.

The education secretary said it will mean children have access to tests and results "quickly".

Mobile testing units could be despatched to schools with confirmed outbreaks to carry out "specific detailed investigations" to test others who may have been in contact with the person who has tested positive. 

Whole schools could be tested after a confirmed outbreak if necessary though testing will first focus on the infected person’s class, followed by their year group.

Mr Williamson said "nothing can replace being in the classroom", so when pupils do return, teachers will be asked to "address gaps in knowledge" to ensure children can "catch up on lost learning".

This will mean a broad and balanced curriculum will be required and schools should consider how all subjects can contribute to filling gaps in core knowledge.

Mr Williamson said he expects exams to return in the summer of 2021.

He insisted children would not be taught a “watered-down curriculum” when they return.

At the Downing Street press conference, he said: “It is going to be a full and total curriculum that is going to be delivered for our children across all subjects.

“It’s incredibly important that we have the same standards and rigour across our education system as we come out of lockdown as we had going into it.

“We are not going to be in a situation where we see vital subjects cut out of children’s education.

“So, the idea that there will be a watered-down curriculum is totally, totally untrue.”

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston analysis the potential impact of schools reopening

He also said he wanted breakfast and after-school clubs to resume despite coronavirus guidance aimed at preventing children from different year groups mixing.

“We want to see these opening alongside the full opening of schools in September and we are also going to be ensuring that the many activities that often take place on school premises during the summer holidays are going to be taking place," he added.

Alongside teaching efforts, the government has provided "significant financial support" to help children catch up on "lost learning" through a tutoring scheme for the most disadvantaged pupils.

As part of a £1 billion covid-catch-up package, a £650 million "catch up premium" will be awarded to state funded, primary, secondary and special schools.

The remaining £350 million will go towards tutoring."Evidence shows that six to eight weeks of tutoring for a disadvantaged pupil can result in five months of catch up," the eduction secretary said.

He added: "Schools held accountable for the outcomes they achieve with their funding, including through Ofsted inspections, and the Covid-catch-up funding will be no exception to this."

Education Secretary Williamson announced that from July 20 nurseries will no longer be limited on the number of children allowed to play and learn together.

One idea to enable schools to return is to stagger break times. Credit: PA

Labour welcomed the announcement, but said it should have come sooner.

New shadow education secretary Kate Green said the Government had been “asleep at the wheel” in terms of its plans for getting pupils to return to schools.

She told the Commons: “Today’s announcement finally recognises the desperate pleas of heads, staff and governors for information and certainty about plans for the next academic year."

"The announcement today (Thursday) comes just three weeks before the end of term and an immense amount needs to be done to prepare,” she added.

Ms Green also criticised government plans to fine parents in England if they do not send their children back to school in September.

She said: “I support the Secretary of State in reintroducing compulsory attendance but fining poor parents will not serve the best interests of their children.

“Parents need reassurance that their children will be safe, especially in communities – including ethnic minority communities – where the prevalence of Covid is higher.”

From Thursday, school in Leicester will shut as the city is placed under a local lockdown. Credit: PA

Deputy chief medical officer for England Dr Jenny Harries said lessons could be held outside in order to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.

She told the Downing Street press conference: “I’m very sure that from conversations that I’ve had from some of the teachers working with Department for Education that teaching site providers are finding very innovative ways to manage that particularly for example in the summer.

“You can have a group of children in a lesson outside and that reduces your risks instantly.”

She also warned a second wave or peak of coronavirus remains possible.

She said: “A second wave is quite a possibility – that is not ruled out at all. A second peak, as in an epidemic peak, is also not ruled out.

“In fact, in pandemics you can sometimes see successive ones – so we’re talking about a second, but you can get waves and waves.”

Meanwhile, schools in Leicester will be closed on Thursday and will not reopen until after the summer break after the city was placed on lockdown following a spike in coronavirus cases.