Schools Minister Nick Gibb says 'we're back on track' as schools reopen today

1 September 2020, 10:09 | Updated: 1 September 2020, 14:34

By Maddie Goodfellow

Minister for School Standards Nick Gibb explained how we get all students, especially those with looming exams, back on track as schools reopen today in England.

Approximately 40 per cent of schools are expected to welcome back students for the start of the autumn term today, despite concerns being raised about their ability to reopen safely.

Mr Gibb confirmed to LBC that the Government is looking at pushing back next year's GCSE and A-Level exams "a few weeks" in England in order to get students "back on track."

However, when Nick Ferrari pushed the minister for a specific time frame, Mr Gibb could not give one due to the many conflicting logistical issues.

The Department for Education is also reviewing the assessment processes next year to free up more teaching time and ensure children "catch up on their studies" over the course of the academic year.

"We've been working on this since mid June," Mr Gibb told Nick.

When asked about the 46 per cent attainment gap between rich and poor children, Mr Gibb said: "Everything we as a government have been doing since 2010 has been about closing that gap and we do not want Covid-19 to ruin this and set the attainment gap back.

"There is a 1 billion catch up programme for schools, with money specifically put aside to help disadvantaged children with programmes such as individual and small group tuition.

Millions of pupils will be returning to schools for the first time in months
Millions of pupils will be returning to schools for the first time in months. Picture: PA

However, education unions are calling for a temporary ban on school absence fines as thousands of pupils return to classrooms in England and Wales.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said the Government should temporarily scrap fines for parents who do not send their children back to class due to fears around coronavirus.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said: "If you are a parent and you are worried about safety, a fine is unlikely to make you feel any safer.

"The Government understands this, but the threat of fines still remains, so we're urging the Government to take the threat of fines off the table for the coming term.

"This would send a powerful signal to parents and families and could well mean that more of them are willing to bring their children back to school, which is what we all want to see."

The school leaders' union said while it hoped attendance would be "as close to 100% as possible", it understood "there will be some families who do not yet feel ready to return".

Its recent survey of more than 4,000 school leaders in England and Wales found that 97 per cent plan to reopen their schools to all pupils at the start of the autumn term, with the date varying across the country.

The remaining 3 per cent, which were not immediately reopening, were planning transition periods for new pupils or phasing entry to alleviate students' anxieties, according to the survey.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter (26 per cent) of parents said they were not planning to send their child back to school at the start of term, while a further 20 per cent remained undecided, according to a poll by the charity Parentkind.

Its survey of 3,400 parents also found that 78 per cent opposed fines for school absences during the autumn term.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) said fining families for school absences "will not resolve the fears or anxieties felt by many".

She said the Government also needed to improve facilities for remote learning and IT access for children to ensure their education continues with "as little interruption as possible" in the event of a future lockdown.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to face parliament to explain "how he will protect" children's futures.

He said: "He needs to explain how he will make up for the damage already done, bring pupils up to speed and mitigate against the ongoing risk from the pandemic."

Mr Williamson said in a statement: "I do not underestimate how challenging the last few months have been, but I do know how important it is for children to be back in school, not only for their education but for their development and wellbeing too."

The teachers' union NASUWT said there was still "considerable work" to be done around how the Government intended to ensure schools followed its own safety guidance.

NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach added: "The government has also failed to provide any guidance on schools on steps which should be taken to minimise any discriminatory impacts of coronavirus, despite the wealth of data showing that those from BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds have a disproportionately higher risk of death or hospitalisation from Covid-19."

It comes amid the news that next year's GCSE and A-Level exams could be delayed to give pupils more time to catch up with the syllabus.

Gavin Williamson told the Daily Telegraph that Ofqual - England's regulator for exams - was contemplating whether there should be a "short delay" to 2021's exam timetable.

The organisation has been working with the education sector to establish the most appropriate plans for next year.

Mr Williamson said: "I know there's some concern about next year's exams, and that's why we've been working with Ofqual on changes we can make to help pupils when they take GCSEs and A-levels next year.

"Ofqual will continue to work with the education sector and other stakeholders on whether there should be a short delay to the GCSE, A and AS-level exam timetable in 2021, with the aim of creating more teaching time."

Schools Minister Nick Gibb told LBC: "We wrote to regulator back in mid-June about this issue because we knew children has missed out on education.

"So we have already asked the regulator to work with the exam board to delay the exams by a week or a few weeks, and we are currently looking at how to combat UK-wide issues such as term dates.

"We want young people to catch up over this academic year, and we will be trying to free up teaching time, but it depends on a range of factors such as allowing time for marking to match up with university applications."

It comes as a poll by Tes found that 86 per cent of nearly 6,000 school staff in England said minimising contact between pupils would not be possible.

More than a third (35 per cent) also felt that the Government's approach to coronavirus safety in schools would not work and left them "at risk".

Schools in Scotland began to reopen on August 11, while all pupils in Northern Ireland were due to return from August 31.