Education secretary confirms primary school reopening plans are being scaled back


The Government has abandoned plans to give every primary pupil a chance to go back to the classroom this term.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the climbdown this afternoon. He will now leave the decision up to individual schools, who will almost certainly err on the side of caution.

It follows concerns that many primaries don’t have the space or staffing levels to enable all year groups to return for at least four weeks before the summer break.

They are currently teaching in ‘bubbles’ of up to 15 pupils to keep them away from other children. Schools have also introduced a range of other strict safety measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Schools in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent began welcoming back children in nursery, reception, Year 1 and Year 6 on June 1. But Cheshire East Council is reviewing whether to delay its phased reopening of schools, which was due to start on Monday next week, following higher than average infection rates in the North West.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Mr Williamson acknowledged they would ‘not be able’ to go ahead with the wider plans this term. But he added: “We will be working to bring all children back to school in September.”

He also reassured secondary school and college students, who are about to start their final GCSE or A-level years, that they will still be able to take exams next summer. There had been speculation these could be replaced with teacher assessed grades for the second year in a row.

Teaching unions have welcomed the rethink on primary classes.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the heads’ union ASCL, said: “The ‘ambition’ to bring back all primary year groups for a month before the end of the summer term was a case of the Government over-promising something that wasn’t deliverable.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), believes ministers now need to come up with a ‘national recovery plan’ for children’s education.

She said this should focus on ‘greatly increased support’ for disadvantaged pupils, including free internet access. Dr Bousted also called for community centres and libraries to be ‘requisitioned’ for learning so they could help ease the pressure on space in schools.

St Werburgh's CE Primary School, Kingsley
St Werburgh’s CE Primary School, Kingsley

At St Werburgh’s CE Primary, in Kingsley, finding room to teach children in smaller groups has already posed a challenge.

Principal Alex Brayford, who also oversees four other schools in the Moorlands, said: “We would love to have more children back, but safety has got to come first.”

Just under 30 per cent of eligible pupils from reception, Year 1 and Year 6 returned to St Werburgh’s on Monday.

“If we had wider reopening this term, it would be really difficult. A class of 30 has to be split into two classes of 15, which means double the staff,” said Mr Brayford.

The school has given pupils home learning packs and online activities. Staff have found families have responded well.

But nationally, there are concerns that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has widened during lockdown.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, described the news that many primary pupils would have to wait to return to school as a ‘huge disappointment’.

She added: “We know that there’s a real variation in learning. We’ve got some children, more affluent children, especially those going to private schools, who are literally attending Zoom schools from nine till three in the afternoon, with lessons as normal.

“And we know that 90 per cent of disadvantaged children aren’t going online for more than two hours, if that. We also know there’s about a million children who just don’t have the tech or the broadband to be able to learn in this way.”





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