Government scraps plans to get all primary school children back before summer

9 June 2020, 14:04

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The Government has scrapped its plan to get all primary school children back in classrooms for a month before the summer holidays, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Mr Williamson said the government is still "working to bring all children back to class in September," following the coronavirus outbreak.

However, he said ministers will "continue to follow scientific advice" while implementing a "cautious phased return" to schools and offered no guarantee that all pupils would return to classes for four weeks before the start of the next academic year.

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He told MPs: "While we are not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer, we continue to work with the sector on the next steps.

"We would like to see schools who have the capacity to bring back more children in those smaller class sizes, to do so, if they are able to, before the summer holidays.

"We will be working to bring all children back to school in September."

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was speaking in the Commons on Tuesday
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was speaking in the Commons on Tuesday. Picture: PA

It comes after school leaders, teachers and governors urged ministers to reconsider plans for a full return to primary school, as they said it would be impossible amid capacity issues, staff shortages and social distancing.

The education secretary also told MPs the number of children in schools is rising.

"Last week we saw the number of primaries taking nursery, reception and year one or year six pupils steadily rise as part of a phased, cautious, wider reopening of schools," he said.

"By the end of the week, more than half of primary schools were taking pupils from these year groups and as of yesterday that had risen to over 70 per cent of primaries that had responded."

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Pupils in Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 in England began a phased return to primary school last week after the Government eased lockdown measures.

But some schools said they did not have sufficient space or capacity to admit all pupils in the eligible year groups while also ensuring social distancing measures and limiting class sizes to 15.

Figures released by the Department for Education (DfE) on Tuesday showed that just over half (52 per cent) of primary schools in England had reopened to more children on Thursday last week.

Mr Williamson confirmed exams will be taking place next year and that the Government "will not hesitate" to act if the R rate reaches above one in local areas.

He told the Commons: "I know that schools need time to put in place the strict protective measures we have asked for and we continue to work with the sector to make sure any schools experiencing difficulties are supported to open more widely as soon as it is possible.

"Some schools in areas such as the North West are concerned about local rates of transmission.

"I can assure them that Sage's R estimate for the whole of the UK is below one.

"If robust data shows that local action needs to be taken, we will not hesitate to do so. But we are not in that position."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said there would have been "significant practical barriers" to bringing all primary pupils back in the summer term if the plan had gone ahead.

He said: "School leaders are already working through the practical considerations of engaging all pupils and families as best they can, as the academic year draws to a close. This will require flexibility in order to balance the needs of all pupils with the continued constraints placed upon schools.

"With the end of term just six weeks away, Government now needs to provide urgent clarity on the anticipated constraints that schools may face in September, so that schools and parents can start to look ahead and plan with a greater understanding of the possible disruption that may yet still follow."