Boris Johnson has ordered ministers to ramp up preparations for reopening schools on March 8 after being told the UK is now past the peak of the current wave of coronavirus.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government’s immediate focus must be on education, and the Government is expected to announce further measures to help children catch up after almost a year of disruption.
Mr Johnson said, in a statement to the Commons, that a review of the roadmap out of lockdown would be published in the week commencing Feb 22, and schools will be scheduled to open from Monday, Mar 8, should the vaccine roll out continue to progress.
Mr Johnson’s optimism on school reopening is built on the success of the vaccination programme, as over 10 million people have received the first dose of the vaccine in the UK, and the number of daily positive tests falls to 16,840 as of Feb 2.
Mr Johnson said on Jan 27 that opening schools is a “national priority” and the return of students to the classroom will be “the first sign of normality beginning to return.”He acknowledged how “frustrating” the news will be for teachers, parents and carers, as well as the mental health impact on pupils stuck at home for such a prolonged period of time.
The Government has been under pressure to provide clarity on when schools will fully reopen, following criticism from several backbench Tory MPs, who backed a campaign by the parents’ pressure group UsForThem, who are calling for schools to fully reopen.
All primary and secondary schools have been closed since Jan 5 following the introduction of a third national lockdown in England, and have since offered remote learning for students. Only vulnerable children and children of key workers are currently allowed to attend schools for face-to-face learning.
The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has confirmed that schools will receive a two-week notice period before they reopen in order to allow staff to prepare for the return of pupils.
In addition to the school closures, GCSE and A-level exams face cancellation for a second year.
Replacing traditional exams, GCSE and A-Level students will receive their results from their teacher-assessed grades, and, in some rare cases, mini external exams, which may have taken place throughout the year.
The Prime Minister pledged on Jan 27 that arrangements would be extended to provide free school meals to eligible children via food parcels and the voucher scheme. Mr Johnson also committed to a “catch up scheme” worth £300m of new money to provide tutoring in schools over the next financial year.
Read more: Tracking UK Covid vaccinations: Are we on target to end lockdown?
What are the rules for children of key workers and vulnerable children?
The Department for Education (DfE) said children with at least one parent or carer who was a critical worker could attend class – even if parents were working from home.
It came after concerns were raised about the risks of transmission of Covid-19 amid reports that more than half of pupils were on site in some primary schools.
Those entitled to free school meals will continue to receive them during closures, according to Mr Johnson.
Matt Hancock said on Jan 11 that Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, would be sending out 500,000 laptops to vulnerable children to ensure they can access remote lessons.
The Prime Minister told MPs that 560,000 laptops were distributed in 2020, but this still falls short of the 1.5m pupils that Ofcom estimates are without digital devices in their homes, on which they can learn.
Mr Williamson said on Jan 21, that a further 1.3 million electronic devices would be distributed to help with remote learning as schools stayed shut.
A DfE spokesman said: “Schools are open for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. We expect schools to work with families to ensure all critical worker children are given access to a place if this is required.
“If critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time then they should do so, but otherwise this provision is in place to enable them to provide vital services.”
The DfE also said that schools were expected to “strongly encourage” vulnerable children to attend class.
Vulnerable children could include “pupils who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home” due to a lack of devices or a quiet space to study, according to the advice.
But government guidance says parents who choose to keep children out of class will not be penalised.
What do tiers mean for schools?
The new lockdown measures mean the entire country will be subject to the same tougher measures, including the closure of all schools. This means the tier system is not currently in place.
Mr Johnson said on the announcement of closing schools: “I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe to children.
“The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.”
However, the Prime Minister has suggested that England will return to the regional tier system at the end of lockdown, meaning that schools can reopen if tier rules remain the same. However, sources have suggested that tiers could apply to the whole country, rather than geographical area.
“The appetite for regional tiers will only come if you have large swathes of the country that are significantly lower in case numbers and new variant case numbers and hospitalisations.” a source said.
Officials are believed to be prioritising the reopening of schools before any other relaxation of restrictions, such as the reopening of hospitality and allowing family and friends to meet in outdoor settings.
Read more on the previous tier system:
Are there any changes to exams?
Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has indicated that GCSE, A-Level and AS exams may take place after all.
Mr Williamson addressed this possibility in a letter to the chief exam regulator on Jan 13. This contradicts his announcement on on Jan 6 that exams would not take place this summer.
Mr Williamson explained that the replacement would be a “form of teacher-assessed grades, with training and support provided to ensure these are awarded fairly and consistently across the country”.
However, the Education Secretary stated on Jan 13 that he would “like to explore the possibility of providing externally set tasks or papers”.
While teachers’ predicted grades will still be used, the exams may be necessary so that teachers can “draw on this resource to support their assessments of students”, he said.
Previously, Mr Williamson had told the Commons that, while exams are the fairest way of testing a student’s knowledge, the Covid pandemic means it is “not possible to have exams this year” and ministers will “put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms”.
The Department for Education and Ofqual will launch a joint consultation on the plans later this week, and this will run for a fortnight.
How will testing in schools work?
In December, ministers said secondary school pupils and teachers would be able to have daily lateral flow tests for a week if they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
That would mean children could continue their education at school rather than entire classes or year groups being sent home to self-isolate for 10 days .
But on Jan 20, a joint statement from Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace said the balance between the risks and benefits of a daily testing programme in schools was now “unclear” and plans were being paused, due to the higher rates of transmission and secondary attack rate observed in the new Covid variant.