In the House of Commons on Wednesday 13th May 2020, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson MP, reiterated how his Department have “worked closely with all the teaching unions and headteachers’ unions and with the sector”.
Whilst the rate of infection remains too high to allow the reopening of schools for all pupils yet, it is evidently clear that the best place for children to be educated and to learn is in school.
Indeed, the Children’s Commissioner for England has called the Government plans to bring back certain pupils “sensible” and also cited the “overwhelming evidence that prolonged periods out of school is extremely damaging for all children.”
The Government’s intention is to get as many children back to nurseries, schools and colleges as soon as the scientific advice allows, with a phased return commencing from Monday 1st June 2020 at the earliest, and even then with smaller class sizes and limiting mixing between groups.
Opening schools is vitally important because children’s education is best achieved in a school setting. It is also important because returning to educational and childcare settings in greater numbers will also allow more families to return to work. From the week commencing 1st June at the earliest, the Government will be asking primary schools to prepare to welcome back children in nursery, reception, year-1 and year-6, alongside the priority groups currently at school.
Alongside this, the Government will be asking secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges to offer some face-to-face support to supplement the remote education of year-10 and year-12 students, alongside the full time provision they are offering to priority groups. Nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, will also be asked to begin welcoming back all children from 1st June. Further to this, special schools, special post-16 institutions and hospital schools should look to achieve an equivalent phased return without a focus on specific year groups.
The Government approach is underpinned by the latest understanding of the science, which indicates that we need to take a phased approach in order to limit the risk of increasing the rate of transmission of the virus. We know that attending early education lays the foundation for lifelong learning and supports children’s social and emotional development. The three primary school year groups have been prioritised because they are key transition years, and the two year groups in secondary schools/colleges have been prioritised because they are preparing for key examinations next year. The ambition is to bring all primary year groups back to school before the summer holidays, for a month if possible, though this will be kept under review. We will only welcome back additional year groups if the most up-to date assessment of the risk posed by the virus indicates it is appropriate to do so. Keeping children and staff safe is the Government’s utmost priority.
The Government is continuing to limit the number of children returning so that settings can reduce the number of people in classrooms compared to usual and put protective measures in place to reduce risks. We will be asking settings to implement a range of protective measures including children staying within their groups wherever possible, frequent cleaning, reducing crowding at so-called ‘pinch points’ (such as parents dropping children off at the start and end of the day) and utilising outdoor space.
Staff and children in all settings will also be eligible for testing if they become ill with coronavirus symptoms, as will members of their households, and the track and trace approach will be applied to any confirmed cases. Those who are extremely clinically vulnerable, or are living with someone who is, are not expected to attend. Our education providers are central to the country’s response to this current crisis. I am very grateful to all those who work in our education and care settings for their efforts.
This phased return of schools is, of course, dependent on the medical advice at the time and the Government will continue to monitor the situation.