Around a million primary school pupils in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 will not return to their desks as planned next week, with the Government putting its U-turn down to rising infection rates and the spread of the new variant of coronavirus.
The expected staggered reopening of secondary schools in England will also be delayed, the Education Secretary announced as he said an “immediate adjustment” had to be made to plans for the new year return.
Gavin Williamson said students in exam years will return to secondary schools a week later than planned, from January 11, while other secondary and college students will go back full-time on January 18.
He told MPs in the Commons that primary schools in a “small number of areas” in England where Covid-19 infection rates are among the highest will not reopen for face-to-face teaching to all pupils as planned next week.
A list of the 50 areas where it is expected that some primary schools will not open as planned next week to all pupils was published by the Department for Education (DfE) and featured places in London, Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire, and Hertfordshire.
There are 1.05 million children aged between four and 11 in these areas, according to analysis of population figures by the PA news agency.
The figures may include some four-year-olds who have not started school, or 11-year-olds who are no longer at primary school.
Children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters will still be able to attend lessons in primary and secondary schools, Mr Williamson said.
Shadow further education and universities minister Emma Hardy said it was a “shambles” that a list of schools had not been provided alongside the Education Secretary’s statement.
There has been growing concern from teaching unions and scientists about the spread of the virus following the discovery of a more transmissible variant, with rising case rates and hospital admissions in many parts of the country.
Mr Williamson said: “We must always act swiftly when circumstances change. The evidence about the new Covid variant and rising infection rates have required some immediate adjustment to our plans for the new term.
“The latest study we have from Public Health England is that Covid infections among children are triggered by changes in the community rate. The study also says that the wider impact of school closures on children’s development would be significant.
“I’m quite clear that we must continue to do all we can to keep children in school.”
The staggered approach was due to see primary school pupils and Year 11 and 13 students returning in the first week of January, and others going back later in the month to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.
Wednesday’s change of plan came after warnings from experts suggesting a delayed return might be necessary as hospitals struggle with more Covid-19 patients than in the peak of the first wave.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), described the announcement as “another last-minute mess which could so easily have been avoided” had the Government listened to school leaders before the Christmas break.
He said: “Instead, back then, schools which wanted to shift to remote learning were threatened with legal action. Now we have a situation where the Government is instructing schools to reduce the amount of teaching time available.
“If we’d had the freedom to take action before the holidays, we might have been in a position to have more schools open for more pupils. School leaders will be baffled, frustrated and justifiably angry tonight.”
Greenwich in south-east London, whose council was threatened with legal action by the Government earlier this month after issuing advice to schools to move to online learning for the last few days of term, is not on the DfE’s list.
Mr Williamson said the Government expects to deliver 50,000 devices to schools across the country on January 4 to support remote and online learning, adding that 100,000 devices will be delivered during the first week of term.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the decision to delay face-to-face teaching for secondary pupils is “unsurprising”, adding that a “difficult balancing act” between keeping education fully open and suppressing the virus “has clearly swung in the direction of tackling the immediate public health crisis”.
But he said concerns remain about the “huge logistical challenge” of recruiting and training staff to run mass testing centres for secondaries and colleges.
Mr Barton, who said the Government has “made a habit of chaotic 11th-hour announcements which leave schools and colleges picking up the pieces”, said support for mass testing remains insufficient and discussions with ministers and officials will continue.
Laying out new plans for the return of pupils to secondary schools, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “In secondary schools all vulnerable children and children of critical workers will go back next week across England as originally planned, but we will ask exam year pupils in secondary to learn remotely during the first week of term and return to the classroom from January 11.
“The remaining secondary school pupils – non-exam groups – will go back a week later, that is from January 18.”
He suggested these plans could change again depending on rates of infection and added: “I want to stress that depending on the spread of the disease it may be necessary to take further action in their cases as well in the worst affected areas.”
Universities are also being asked to reduce the number of students returning to campus from the beginning of next month, Mr Williamson told MPs, adding that students who need practical learning to gain their professional qualifications should be prioritised.
He said all university students should be offered two rapid coronavirus tests on their return to campus.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said it was “right that Government and universities should look again at plans for the start of the spring term” given the changing situation with infections.
He added: “Today’s announcement will understandably raise further issues and uncertainty, for students, universities and staff, which will need to be addressed by Government over the coming weeks, including the need for financial support, regulatory flexibility and assessment changes.”
A YouGov poll conducted overnight suggested 43% of 7,999 British adults would “strongly support” keeping schools in England closed for two further weeks after the Christmas break.
Just 9% “strongly oppose” and 10% “somewhat oppose” keeping school gates shut, YouGov said.