Peter Bearne: 'A momentous day' as children return to school across the Midlands

  • Students arriving at Lightwoods primary school in Oldbury.

Thousands of children across the Midlands have returned to school today as part of the first step in easing lockdown in England.

Some secondary schools have introduced a staggered return to allow for the set up of testing, along with the wearing of masks in classrooms where social distancing isn't possible.

As pupils return to the classroom for the first time since December, the rules around meeting a person from another household will also be loosened.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hoped the easing of restrictions on Monday will mark a “big step” on his “roadmap to freedom” - which could see all Covid restrictions lifted by June 21.

Today ITV News Central spoke to parents arriving at Lightwoods primary school in Oldbury.

It's not only 80% of the pupils' first day back this year, the headteacher also sees it as his 'first day'.

Rob Matthews started on Jan 1st but he said it's the first day he'll meet most of the children.

  • Rob Matthews, Headteacher Lightwoods Primary School

The Education Secretary and South Staffordshire MP Gavin Williamson visited a school in Solihull this morning, he said: "We are not going to be seeing schools closing again, we want to see children back into schools, enjoying their time with our teachers but also with their friends.

"This is why we're taking a cautious approach. So schools are never in the position of having to close."

  • The Education Secretary and South Staffordshire MP, Gavin Williamson

Education Correspondent, Peter Bearne reports

Ok, so the early morning alarm call, pulling on the uniform, the school run - there were a few things pupils might not have welcomed the return of today. But I think we can safely say the vast majority would have been relieved, even delighted, to be back in school once more.

For months, children and young people have grappled with remote learning and been separated from their friends and teachers. And let's not get started on parents and carers struggling with homeschooling. 

Yes, getting pupils back into class is a good thing.  And it showed on the faces I saw this morning at the Pingle Academy in Swadlincote, Derbyshire.

That's not to say there won't have been some anxiety among students and staff today. They return to a changed routine, with secondary pupils now asked to wear masks in the classroom, and schools having to have a comprehensive testing regime in place.

Credit: ITV News Central

Students will have three rapid result tests on their return, followed by twice-weekly tests at home. To enable this, the Government has distributed 57 million kits to schools. In some Midlands schools, though, as few as two-thirds of parents have given consent for their children to be tested, giving headteachers a logistical headache.

The Government has always made the full re-opening of schools its top priority in escaping lockdown.  Boris Johnson, though, has also talked of schools being "vectors for transmission", and questions remain though over the risk of spreading the virus.

This time round, he's making two big calls: re-opening all schools at once (the so-called "big bang" approach), and resisting calls for staff to be made a priority for the vaccine. Even one of his own scientific advisers has said there's a risk of pushing the virus reproduction rate or R number above 1 again.

Ministers though believe it's the right move to get children back on track with their education and to look after their mental wellbeing. There's been lots of talk over the weekend about "catch up", with Education Secretary and South Staffordshire MP Gavin Williamson hinting at possibly longer school days and shorter holidays to fill gaps in pupils' learning.

"Catch up", though, are not words you'll hear uttered in classrooms across the Midlands today or in the coming days. Schools say they want to focus on what pupils have learnt, not what they haven't - and, at a time of heightened anxiety, highlighting any gaps in their learning may do more harm than good.

It's a momentous day for staff, pupils and schools, and a symbolically powerful day in our route back to normal life. 

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