Boris Johnson is to make a last-gasp attempt to get as many primary children as possible back to school before the summer holidays amid rising fury at the social and economic cost of the lockdown.
Under new plans expected to be unveiled this week schools will be given the green light to return as many children to classes as safely possible as soon as possible.
Last week Education Secretary Gavin Williamson faced an outcry after admitting that the Government’s ‘ambition’ of returning all primary children to school for a month before the summer could not be met.
But with a lack of space to allow students to safely return with classroom limits of 15 pupils and two-metre social distancing rules, it is unclear how many pupils will yet be able to resume their education.
Some school leaders have called for the creation of ‘Nightingale Schools’ to be created in church halls and other buildings, with volunteers drawn from ex-teaching staff helping run lessons.
It came as an economist warned that the closure had so far cost the economy £22billion in lost productivity, with parents forced to take time off to care for youngsters.
A No 10 source said Boris Johnson was ‘acutely aware’ of the impact the extended closure was having on pupils and was working with Mr Williamson on a major ‘catch-up’ plan.
The details came as the Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield issued a fresh warning that the failure to re-open schools risked undermining children’s basic right to an education.
‘It has taken 200 years of campaigning to get children into the classroom, ensuring that education was a basic right for all children,’ she told the Observer.
‘We seem for the first time to be prepared to let that start go into reverse. And I think that is a very, very dangerous place to be.
‘We heard from the Prime Minister back in April that education was one of the top three priorities for easing lockdown, but it seems to have been given up on quite easily.’
Under new plans expected to be unveiled this week schools will be given the green light to return as many children to classes as safely possible as soon as possible
But with a lack of space to allow students to safely return with classroom limits of 15 pupils and two-metre social distancing rules, it is unclear how many pupils will yet be able to resume their education
Chief Inspector of schools Amanda Spielman today said that a reduction in the two-metre rule – currently being mooted for shops – would help ease the strain on classrooms
Currently primary schools in England – which closed following the coronavirus lockdown in March – are opening to pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.
However, ministers will this week reaffirm schools can take children from other year groups provided they have the capacity to do so safely.
It means limiting class sizes to just 15 while ensuring protective measures are in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
With most children not now due to return until September, it will have been nearly six months since they have been in a classroom by the time they get back.
Chief Inspector of schools Amanda Spielman today said that a reduction in the two-metre rule – currently being mooted for shops – would help ease the strain on classrooms.
She told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: ‘A reduced distance expectation will filter through into greater capacity in schools.’
She added that the priority must be getting children back as soon as possible, saying: ‘They are losing so much now, through losing education, losing the wider social interaction, losing the wider development, and of course losing their preparedness for economic opportunities of the future.’
The Prime Minister was said to be particularly concerned about the impact on disadvantaged children who lack the same support at home and access to remote learning as others.
A No 10 source said: ‘The PM is acutely aware that school closures will have a disproportionate impact on all children, and particularly the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children.
‘He appreciates the consequences of months out of school, and this package will be focused on providing extended support for children.
‘The PM is so grateful for the hard work of teachers, parents and schools to keep educating children throughout this difficult period.’
Economist Julian Jessop told the Telegraph today that economic output has taken an £11billion hit from the school closure, with lost earnings for parents accounting for a similar figure.
Mr Williamson’s Cabinet future is in doubt after growing anger on the Tory backbenches over the failure to open schools before the autumn.
The Education Secretary is tipped to be one of the high-profile casualties of Boris Johnson’s next reshuffle, following his humiliating U-turn over the target to get all primary school pupils back in the classroom before the summer holidays.
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss is also on the Prime Minister’s hit-list following rows over the terms of a new trade deal with America.
The Education Secretary (pictured) is tipped to be one of the high-profile casualties of Boris Johnson’s next reshuffle, following his humiliating U-turn over the target to get all primary school pupils back in the classroom before the summer holidays
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss (pictured) is also on the Prime Minister’s hit-list following rows over the terms of a new trade deal with America
Cabinet rivals have accused her of being prepared to allow cheap, sub-standard products such as chlorinated chicken to flood the UK market and hit the British farming industry.
Ms Truss’s allies angrily deny the claims. But her career prospects are unlikely to be helped by the fact she is understood to be on the opposite side of the argument from Mr Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds – an animal welfare campaigner.
Mr Williamson infuriated overstretched parents when he said full-time schooling for all pupils would not now resume before September.
The former Defence Secretary – famous for keeping a pet tarantula in his office when he was Chief Whip – has looked a far more subdued figure since taking on the education portfolio.
Last night, former Cabinet Ministers were privately scathing about Mr Williamson for giving the impression that Left-wing teaching unions were somehow dictating when schools returned.
One said: ‘Gavin was a very good Chief Whip but he was far better being in the shadows in that role than on the front line, galvanising the campaign to get the schools back.
‘He should have been talking to the academies which are not under council control.’ Another ex-Cabinet Minister pointed the blame at Mr Johnson for wanting a ‘Cabinet of short poppies where the Ministers just don’t challenge the PM’.
Allies of Mr Williamson dismissed the attacks as ‘nonsense’ and pointed to a Number 10 announcement on how he and Mr Johnson were working together to let children catch up on lost lessons during the summer and open all schools in September.
There are also new plans to open primary schools to additional year groups from this week.
The expected ministerial changes are being dubbed the ‘night of the short knives’ because the big four in the Cabinet – Chancellor Rishi Sunak (pictured right), Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (pictured left), Home Secretary Priti Patel and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove – look set to keep their jobs.
The mooted reshuffle could come sooner than the expected time at the end of July – just before summer recess – if Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick is forced to resign over the row about his approval for a Tory donor’s property scheme.
The expected ministerial changes are being dubbed the ‘night of the short knives’ because the big four in the Cabinet – Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove – look set to keep their jobs.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has faced criticism over his record on issues such as testing rates, but his position is said to be safe while the Covid crisis continues. A source said: ‘To dump Hancock now would be an admission of failure.’