Teaching union calls for delay to January school return - but ministers hope to go ahead as planned

Minister Michael Gove says he hopes to stick to the outlined plan

A teaching union has urged the government to delay its plan to reopen schools in January, amid concerns about safety during the latest Covid outbreak.

But speaking on Monday, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the government hopes the staggered reopening of schools in England will go ahead next month as planned.

Officials from Downing Street and the Department for Education are due to discuss the issue on Monday amid concerns over the spread of a new strain of coronavirus.

Earlier this month, the government said exam-year students would go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays - but the majority of secondary school pupils would start the term online to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, wrote to the Education Secretary on Monday demanding further action on school safety.

Gavin Williamson. Credit: PA

The letter calls for Gavin Williamson to allow schools to move to remote learning for all pupils, except those deemed to be vulnerable or the children of key workers, in the highest tier areas.

"Delaying the return of pupils to schools and colleges at the start of the spring term will also enable all school and college employers to undertake and consult as required on new risk assessments and ensure that they can be compliant with any new measures or requirements contained in any forthcoming national guidance," it says.

The union is also asking the government to publish new safety guidance in light of the new, more infectious Covid-19 variant, introduce mandatory face coverings within schools and give staff priority access to the vaccine.

Earlier this month, the Government said the majority of secondary school pupils would start the term online Credit: Jane Barlow/PA

Speaking before the letter was published, Mr Gove told BBC's Radio 4 Today programme, the government was confident primary school pupils and Year 11 and Year 13 pupils in England would be able to return in the first week of January - with the rest going back later in the month.

“It is our intention to make sure we can get children back to school as early as possible,” he said.

“We are talking to teachers and headteachers in order to make sure we can deliver effectively. But we all know that there are trade-offs.

“As a country we have decided – and I think this is the right thing to do – that we prioritise children returning to school.

“But we have a new strain and it is also the case that we have also had, albeit in a very limited way, Christmas mixing, so we do have to remain vigilant.

“We are confident that we will be able to get schools back in good order. Our plan and our timetable is there, and we are working with teachers to deliver it.”

Millions of people in England are under strict 'Tier 4' lockdown. Credit: PA

He told Sky News: “We always keep things under review but teachers and headteachers have been working incredibly hard over the Christmas period since schools broke up in order to prepare for a new testing regime – community testing – in order to make sure that children and all of us are safer.”

Scientists have suggested that the mutated coronavirus strain could more easily infect children.

The National Education Union has previously said the Government should allow schools to move classes online for most pupils for a fortnight in January to allow Covid-19 cases to fall.

Some schools have had to close due to Covid-19 outbreaks. Credit: PA

Labour has hit out at the Prime Minister "failing to be clear" about scientific advice he's received amid reports that SAGE urge schools to remain shut.

Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said: "Labour has been clear that keeping pupils learning should be a national priority, but a litany of government failures, from a lack of funding for safety measures through to the delayed and chaotic announcement of mass testing, is putting young people’s education at risk. “It is time for the Prime Minister to get a grip on the situation and show some leadership.

"The country needs to hear from him today, alongside the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor, about the evidence on the spread of the virus, how he plans to minimise disruption to education and a clear strategy for schools and colleges that commands the support of parents, pupils and staff.”

Mobile testing centres set up in parts of London to test secondary school pupils for Covid. Credit: PA

Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said the arguments for reopening schools in January were “very finely balanced”.

He said: “Certainly my own view is that schools opening is an absolute priority. But society – and eventually this is a political decision – will have to balance keeping schools open, if that is possible, with therefore closing down other parts of society.

“It is going be a trade-off between one or other. You cannot have everything. You cannot have the whole of society opening, and schools opening and further education and universities, and keep R below 1 with this variant.”