Secondary students face staggered return to school post-Christmas

17 December 2020, 13:52 | Updated: 17 December 2020, 17:50

Secondary school pupils will have a staggered return to school
Secondary school pupils will have a staggered return to school. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Downing Street has said the start of secondary school terms in the new year will not be delayed but schools will be told to operate staggered returns.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The start of the term won't be delayed but what we are doing is asking secondary schools and colleges to operate a staggered return supported by full-time remote education during the first week of term with in-person teaching in full starting on January 11.

"Students in exam year groups, vulnerable children, children of key workers, will attend school or college in person from the start of term as well as students in primary, special and alternative provision schools and colleges."

It is hoped the staggered return will allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff in the new year.

Primary school pupils will go back to school as normal in January, alongside students in exam years, vulnerable pupils and key workers' children.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said on the decision: “I welcome the Government’s announcement that the reopening of secondary schools will be staggered after Christmas to allow the rollout of mass testing to make schools safer.

"Alongside council leaders, I’ve been calling for this to help get the virus under control, but, for teachers and parents, it’s a decision that should have been made well before now.

"It’s vital that the Government ensures that schools have the resources they need and that widespread and regular testing is in place as soon as possible so that disruption to our children’s education is kept to an absolute minimum, and they and their teachers can safely return to school.”

It comes after he threatened legal action against Greenwich council earlier this week after it advised schools to switch to remote learning for most pupils on the last week of term.

Council leaders in Waltham Forest and Islington - who had also advised schools to move to online learning for the last few days of term amid rising coronavirus rates - were told to retract their advice.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The start of the term won't be delayed but what we are doing is asking secondary schools and colleges to operate a staggered return supported by full-time remote education during the first week of term, with in-person teaching in full starting on January 11."

Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Susan Acland-Hood, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, said there were no "plans to lengthen the Christmas holiday".

But she told MPs on Thursday morning that discussions were under way about how pupils would go back in January.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told reporters: "I think schools are going to be really frustrated this has come at the last moment.

"What we needed for schools was a plan that started last September and what we have had is one problem after another all through to the Christmas period."

Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the PAC, said it was "ludicrous" that parents and schools still did not know, on the final day of term for many schools in England, what was happening on the week commencing January 4.

Speaking about events in London this week, Ms Hillier said parents have had "very confusing messages" from Government and local authorities.

She said: "So it's just a complete dog's breakfast out there. Parents don't know from day to day whether their child is going to be in school, partly because of Covid, but then this layered on top is unacceptable, surely?"

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said the Government's announcement on the last day of term demonstrated "ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action" in response to the rise in Covid-19 rates among pupils.

She added: "The presence of year 11 and 13 pupils on the school site at the same time as the testing arrangements and procedures are being put in place will be extremely problematic.

"It is highly likely that these pupils will return from their Christmas holiday with higher levels of Covid-19 infection.

"Those who test positive will be required to isolate, which involves a huge amount of school staff taking the time to contact parents and to trace close contacts."

It came as figures suggested more than half of a small sample of schools surveyed in England had at least one Covid-19 infection last month.

Of the 105 schools in the survey, 1.24% of pupils and 1.29% of staff tested positive for Covid-19 between November 3 and 19, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The survey also found that 27.6% of schools had one current infection, 27.6% had between two and five, and 44.8% had none.

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.