Secondary schools will be shut for at least a week apart from for children in years 11 and 13 – but primary schools will be open as usual from Monday, Michael Gove said today.
Cabinet Office minister Mr Gove has said the Government wants the staggered reopening of schools in England from next Monday, meaning most children over the age of 11 will be taught remotely for at least the first week.
It means the Government has given in to pressure from teachers and unions who demanded that millions of children will be taught online to allow coronavirus testing to take place and for teachers to be vaccinated.
All primary schools will be open, while years 11 and 13 and key workers’ children will attend secondary schools from Monday.
‘We always keep things under review but teachers and head teachers have been working incredibly hard over the Christmas period since schools broke up in order to prepare for a new testing regime – community testing – in order to make sure that children and all of us are safer,’ Mr Gove told Sky News. ‘We do keep things under review but that is the plan’, he added.
Michael Gove today confirmed that only primary schools will be expected to open from Monday
Pressure has been growing on Boris Johnson from within his own party to keep pupils in school at the start of the new term.
Scientists have warned that the new coronavirus mutation appears to spread quickly among youngsters, and schools had high rates of infection before the Christmas holidays.
But several senior Tories have told the PM that it should be his priority to keep all schools open even if it drives the ‘R’ infection rate upwards.
Unions have asked that all schools should be closed for the first two weeks to allow coronavirus testing to take place and for teachers to be vaccinated –
One Tory backbencher told the Telegraph: ‘The view of most Tory MPs is that schools do need to stay open. It is the health people who are saying, “Oh gosh, the hospitals will be full”.
‘We know that schools being open does increase the R rate. The question is, is that a price we are willing to pay and in my view it should be. Frankly, children don’t get harmed so why on earth should we punish them?’
Scientists say that schools being open are likely to keep the ‘R’ rate at or above 1.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, has said the arguments for reopening schools in January were ‘very finely balanced’.
‘I think the next few weeks going into January are going to be extremely difficult across the whole country,’ Sir Jeremy, director of the Wellcome Trust, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
‘Certainly my own view is that schools opening is an absolute priority. But society – and eventually this is a political decision – will have to balance keeping schools open, if that is possible, with therefore closing down other parts of society.
‘It is going be a trade-off between one or other. You cannot have everything. You cannot have the whole of society opening, and schools opening and further education and universities, and keep R below 1 with this variant.
‘I think there are some very, very tough choices. We are going to see these continued pressures at least over the next two or three months.’
Yesterday the Tory candidate for London mayor, Shaun Bailey, said the Government should delay pupils’ return for a fortnight to give a ‘fighting chance against the virus’.
Teaching unions have already called for a return to online lessons for at least two weeks and for teachers to be vaccinated before they go back to classrooms. All lessons were due to restart on January 4, but Education Secretary Gavin Williamson then announced plans for a staggered return for some secondary school pupils.
Under current plans, all primaries will return as normal on January 4, along with GCSE and A-level pupils and those on vocational courses.
Mr Williamson has warned allies he faces an ‘enormous battle’ to keep children attending secondary schools.
Downing Street officials and the Department for Education will hold talks today.
Senior education leaders fear pupils have already lost months of schooling and youngsters sitting exams this year risk being unfairly penalised.
But Mr Bailey, below, who has claimed he has Mr Johnson’s personal backing as the mayoral candidate, said schools were one of the main transmission points for the virus.
He added: ‘We must make the most of the Christmas break to defeat Covid-19 where we can.
‘I am proposing a two-week circuit-breaker for schools. During this time we can stop our children mixing and get our teachers tested.
‘This gives us a fighting chance against the virus without causing maximum disruption.’
Up to 11million lateral flow tests will be made available for schools and colleges from January 4, providing testing capacity for up to 5.5million.
The National Education Union called on the Government to go further, and said it wanted all children to be tested before they returned.
It said all lessons should take place online for two weeks while testing was set up and teachers had their vaccinations.
Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood said troops should be deployed to carry out tests and keep schools open. He said soldiers had successfully helped test hauliers queuing at Dover to clear the backlog of lorries waiting to cross the Channel.
Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, believes the new rapid testing regime ‘will make a difference’.
He said school closures risked ‘damaging the life chances of our next generation’.
A mass testing study in England’s schools revealed that one in every 79 people tested positive in November, without knowing they were infected.
The Office for National Statistics data showed 1.24 per cent of pupils and 1.29 per cent of staff went in because they did not know they had the virus.
Infection rates were highest in secondary schools, and tests in the worst-affected areas of the country found around one in every 67 tested positive.
A Government spokesman said rapid testing would help keep secondary schools open, while reducing the risk of transmission in communities.
They said: ‘We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health. But as the Prime Minister has said, it is right we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review.’