Schools across England will reopen in a ‘phased manner’ when the government decides the time is right to allow pupils to return, the Education Secretary said today.
Gavin Williamson would not be drawn on a fixed date for when schools could be able to resume but ruled out the prospect of them opening over the summer holidays.
He told MPs: ‘I do expect schools to be opened in a phased manner. I also intend to be giving schools as much notice as possible.’
Schools, colleges and nurseries across the UK closed their doors to the majority of pupils, apart from the children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters, more than five weeks ago.
Education is a devolved issue which means the administrations in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be able to take their own decisions on the return of schools.
It will be a key focus of the UK government’s lockdown exit strategy because resuming teaching will free up workers to return to their jobs and kickstart the economy.
Gavin Williamson, pictured in Number 10 on April 19, today announced schools across England will reopen in a ‘phased manner’ when the decision is taken to allow pupils back
Nicola Sturgeon has said school classrooms in Scotland could be redesigned to ensure pupils can stick to social distancing guidance
However, there is a growing consensus that schools will have to stagger the return of pupils in order to comply with expected continued social distancing measures.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, has suggested schools classrooms may have to be redesigned to allow pupils to sit at least two metres apart.
She also hinted classes could be split into different alternating groups because of physical classroom size constraints.
Addressing the Education Select Committee, Mr Williamson suggested he is on the same page as Ms Sturgeon.
‘We recognise that the idea of schools all returning on day one with the full complement of pupils is not realistic or practical,’ he said.
Mr Williamson did not say which year groups could return first, but he said the government is looking at best practice in other countries, such as Germany and Denmark, where schools have begun to reopen.
The minister added that there was no plan to ‘run schools through the summer’.
Mr Williamson’s comments come after the Welsh education minister said yesterday that schools would not be reopening to all students any time soon, but that there could be a phased return for some pupils.
When asked whether the government would update its guidance on Personal Protective Equipment and social distancing in schools to ensure teachers were kept safe, Mr Williamson suggested advice may be reviewed when a phased return of schools begins.
He said: ‘It is incredibly important that we get the right balance in terms of actually making sure that we create an environment that is good to learn in but also that is a safe environment for people to both work in and learn in as well.’
Mr Williamson was pressed by MPs on what the government is doing to ensure the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers does not widen amid school closures.
Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the committee, asked whether the government would support his idea of an ‘army’ of volunteers – made up of retired teachers, graduates, and Ofsted inspectors – to help tutor and mentor disadvantaged children when the lockdown ended.
Mr Halfon also called on Mr Williamson to introduce a ‘catch-up premium’ to provide tuition for these poorer pupils.
Some 55 MPs and peers warned today that the attainment gap would widen without additional funding.
Mr Williamson said the government was ‘open’ to ideas, such as the volunteer scheme, and that they were discussing a range of policies to help disadvantaged children catch up.
‘We are looking at different ways about how we can use the enormous volunteer army of people that have come forward, many with past education experience, many with an awful lot of knowledge in specialist subjects,’ the minister said.
Courtesy DAILY MAIL