Children’s education cannot be “furloughed” for months while Covid-19 vaccinations are rolled out and the country waits for coronavirus cases to subside, the head of England's schools watchdog has said.
Pressure is mounting on the government from both sides on whether children in England should return to school as normal following the Christmas holiday.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has joined calls for pupils to return to the classroom as soon as possible, writing in the Sunday Telegraph that time away from school should be kept to an “absolute minimum”.
However, teaching unions are calling for the return of face-to-face teaching to be delayed, amid soaring cases of the new Covid variant.
On Saturday, a record-high of 57,725 coronavirus cases were reported and 445 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
It was the fifth day in a row when UK figures were higher than 50,000.
It came as a leading teaching union advised primary school staff not to return to classrooms on Monday, amid what it said were unsafe conditions amid the pandemic.
On Friday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that all London primary schools will remain shut next week "as a last resort" as the capital battles with high levels of coronavirus infections.
Most other primary schools in England are expected to still open on Monday while secondary schools will reopen on a staggered basis, with exam year pupils returning on January 11 and others returning a week later.
Schools will remain open for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, as they did when they were shut in the spring and early summer.
On Saturday evening, the Department for Education said remote learning was “a last resort” and classrooms should reopen “wherever possible” with appropriate safety measures to help mitigate the risk of transmission.
“As we’ve said, we will move to remote education as a last resort, with involvement of public health officials, in areas where infection and pressures on the NHS are highest,” the spokesperson said.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised “a chaotic last minute U-turn on schools” in the Sunday Mirror, adding: “Confusion reigns among parents, teachers and pupils over who will be back in school tomorrow and who won’t.”
In Scotland, the Christmas holidays have been extended to January 11, and the following week will be online learning only. A full return to face-to-face learning is planned for January 18.
In Northern Ireland, primary school pupils will be taught online until January 11. In secondary schools, years 8 to 11 will be taught online throughout January. Years 12 to 14 will return to school after the first week of January.
In Wales, local councils have been told they can be "flexible" with when they open - with many schools aiming to return for face-to-face lessons from January 11.
Unions representing teachers and support staff have since called for delays to the reopening of schools across the country.
General secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Mary Bousted, said schools should stay closed for two weeks to “break the chain” of transmission and prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed.”
The union, which represents the majority of teachers, has advised its members it is not safe to return to classrooms on Monday.
National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) general secretary Paul Whiteman said the union had started preliminary steps in legal proceedings against the Department for Education (DfE), asking it to share its scientific data about safety and transmission rates.
Speaking on Sunday morning, Mr Whiteman said the return to schools must be "sustainable" and accused the DfE of "making last-minute decisions because they didn't take proactive action".
"There is nobody more committed to the care and education of children, next to parents of course, than school leaders and their teams," he told BBC Breakfast.
"And anybody that's trying to paint the picture that we're against the care and education of children is simply doing that, simply misleading the public, for political purposes.
"What we're talking about is understanding the risks.
"Having a short break so that we can agree the right mitigations in schools to make them Covid-secure, make sure that staff and teams are vaccinated and that we can get a properly supported testing regime in schools to make them as safe as possible.
"And then have an orderly return to school that's sustainable, rather than the chaos that we have experienced throughout the pandemic, with the DfE making last-minute decisions because they didn't take proactive action.
"So, we agree with everybody that school is the best place for children, we just want to do that well, we want to make it a sustainable return."
Unions have also called for the reopening of schools in Wales next week to be delayed with Laura Doel, director of school leaders’ union NAHT Cymru, saying “the latest data shows that in large parts of Wales, control of infection has been lost”.
Meanwhile, a large group of head teachers has called for the scrapping of GCSE and A-level exams this summer.
However, Mr Williamson is insisting they must still go ahead.
But more than 2,000 head teachers, from the funding campaign group Worthless?, say pupils, parents and teachers should not be put at risk of contracting Covid for the sake of protecting exam timetables.
“Wider public health, pupil and staff safety should be prioritised ahead of examinations,” the head teachers from WorthLess? were quoted as saying in The Sunday Times.
“Public safety should not be risked or driven by an inflexible pursuit of GCSE and A-levels.”
One of the group’s leaders, Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School in Horsham, West Sussex, said there was “great scepticism that exams can now go ahead fairly”.
Recommending teacher assessments for final grades instead, the group says it would be unfair on pupils in areas hit harder by the pandemic than others to go ahead with exams.
Official data cited by the Times shows 62% of pupils were not in school in Medway, Kent, in the last week of November because they were either self-isolating or ill. But in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, the figure was only 8%.
Former education secretary Lord Baker said teachers should be allowed to provide a school-leaving assessment grade of pupils’ performances – accounting for factors such as number of days missed – rather than having them sit exams.
“They (teachers) are better than algorithms and they are the only people who can possibly assess the achievement of their students in this extraordinary time,” Lord Baker said.
Matt Hood, principal of the online Oak National Academy, which was commissioned by the Government to produce online lessons for teachers’ use, said around a million children had been forced to use parents’ mobile phones to study as they did not own a phone or laptop.
Some parents, however, could not afford the extra data charges incurred and had to stop their children from studying, again highlighting disparities between pupils across the country.
Higher and Advanced Highers exams have been cancelled in Scotland, while summer 2021 exams have been cancelled in Wales.
Linda Bauld, a professor in public health at the University of Edinburgh, told the PA news agency that transmission among primary school pupils was “still very limited” while secondary school pupils, particularly older teenagers, can pass on the virus in the same way as adults.
But health professionals have warned of growing pressure on services with Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, telling the BBC current case figures are “fairly mild” compared to what is expected in a week’s time.
Dr Shondipon Laha, an intensive care consultant in Lancashire, told the Sunday Telegraph: “The situation in hospitals is dire in London, but the situation around the country is only a few weeks behind and London is not at its peak yet.
“If you start seeing London overwhelmed it can happen everywhere else quickly.”