Schools will return to 'normal' vows Gavin Williamson - but masks could still be needed

Gavin Williamson has pledged the return of ‘normal’ schooling as he vowed to end Covid disruption in education.

Masks could still appear in schools from September
Masks could still appear in schools from September

The Education Secretary said the success of the vaccine roll out and ramped up testing meant that pupils, parents and staff could look forward to a “new dawn” in schools from September.

He said large groups of youngsters would no longer be sent home on the back of a single positive test, marking the end of the ‘bubble’ system, but warned that masks may still be required in schools in areas where infection rates are high.

Children break up for the summer holidays this week after enduring 16 months of disruption since the first Covid lockdown in March 2020.

South Staffordshire MP Mr Williamson said: “Children, teachers, staff and parents have had to deal with so much during the pandemic, but as we look to the summer and the new academic year ahead, I think we can all do so with real hope and a sense of excitement.

“There is a sense that a new dawn is emerging.

“People recognise the important role that the vaccine has played and for the first time they can really see a way out of this.

“Schools have done so much to support young people, but will now be looking forward to a more normal school year without the level of disruption they have experienced before.

“We have to continue to take careful and do everything we can to keep on top of the virus, but as we look to the next term, it will look the most similar it has been for an awful long time to what things were like before the pandemic.”

But he said that while the majority of restrictions would end from today, there could still be a need for face coverings in schools in areas of high infection.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has vowed that schools will return to 'normal'

The South Staffordshire MP told the Express & Star: “It is easier to teach and learn when people are not wearing masks, so if we are in a position to lift those restrictions – and currently we feel that there are – then it is right to do so.

“We do however recognise that in some areas of the country there might be a need for masks. Where case rates are going up, we will continue to ensure that the right precautions are in place to keep everyone in schools safe.”

Mr Williamson said the success of the vaccine roll out, as well as ramped up coronavirus testing in schools – with children to undergo two tests over the first two weeks of the new term followed by “continued home testing” – meant things would be “getting back to normal” in schools.

He said that while people with symptoms or who test positive for coronavirus would still have to self-isolate, it was important that the disruption to children’s education was “minimised as much as possible”.

And he said his drive to improve infrastructure and standards in education across the Black Country and Staffordshire – and the wider Midlands – was a priority over the year ahead.

As part of the plans a new 750-place secondary school will be built in Wolverhampton by Star Academies, named Star Leadership Academy, and the city's St Peter's Collegiate School will undergo a multi-million pound rebuild.

Wombourne High School in Staffordshire, Belvidere School in Shrewsbury and King Edward VI Handsworth Wood Girls' Academy in Birmingham will also undergo rebuilding projects.

The Government has also pledged £1.8 billion over the coming year for school repairs.

How the new outdoor dining and recreation area might look at Belvidere School in Shrewsbury

Mr Williamson said: “It is all about building a better education infrastructure, as well as improving standards across the whole region.”

As part of plans to boost standards, Mr Williamson is set to launch a crackdown on poor behaviour with a ban on mobile phones in classrooms one of the measures under consideration.

He said that children's education suffers in schools where bad behaviour is "rife", and that banning mobiles could be an important factor in improving the quality of learning.

He said he wanted to make the school day “mobile-free” and to ensure that pupils can benefit from “calm classrooms” where the focus is on teaching and learning.

Mr Williamson said: “The evidence shows that when you have bans on mobile phones, and you have strong and good discipline and behaviour policies in place, attainment for children can be significantly boosted.

“But it’s not just about the educational benefits, it is also for their mental health and wellbeing.

“Increasingly phones are being used as a tool to bully people and for them to be exposed to inappropriate images. I think this is a really important measure.”

Mr Williamson is also looking at the use of “removal rooms” in schools, as well as "managed moves" where a pupil can be transferred to another school as a way of avoiding a formal expulsion.

The measures are currently out for consultation, with Mr Williamson expected to announce updated government guidance on behaviour, discipline, suspensions and permanent exclusions later this year.

Meanwhile Star Academies has signed a deal with independent boarding school Eton to open three selective state sixth forms in deprived areas.

The locations of the sixth forms have not yet been confirmed but Star Academies has said they will be in the North and Midlands, with the first due to open in September 2024.

They will aim to get youngsters from poor homes into top universities, with recruitment selective and focused on young people on free school meals or who live in deprived areas.

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