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Many secondary school pupils in England will have a staggered return to school after the Christmas holidays, with online learning replacing classroom lessons, the government has announced.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is to table a written statement to parliament setting out the plans for a staggered return to the classroom at the start of the new term in January. The government in Wales is also expected to make an announcement.
The move comes just days after the Department for Education threatened legal action against schools and local authorities in England that wanted to send pupils home for the last week of the current term.
The new delay is intended to allow schools to set up Covid testing schemes announced earlier this week, and which have drawn sharp criticism from headteachers and union leaders for the demands the scheme makes on staff time.
Pupils taking exams such as GCSEs and A-levels are expected to return as soon as term starts on 4 or 5 January, with other year groups working from home and asked to come in for a Covid test before returning full-time the following week. Primary schools will not be affected.
The late announcement means schools will have to rapidly produce online learning materials, with most schools ending their term on Friday and some having already closed for the holidays.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, said it “beggars belief that this announcement is being made now, right at the end of term, and after the government has spent the last few weeks refusing to contemplate the idea of remote learning and threatening schools with legal action if they dared to suggest such a move”.
Susan Acland-Hood, the Department for Education’s permanent secretary, told MPs this morning that “conversations were going on” about when state school pupils in England would return after the holidays, but refused to confirm reports that the start of term would be delayed.
Appearing before the Commons’ public accounts committee, Acland-Hood said: “We don’t have any plans to lengthen the Christmas holiday.
“There are conversations going on about exactly how parents and pupils will go back at the beginning of January but I’m afraid I can’t speak to the committee about that this morning.”
Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair, told Acland-Hood: “It is ludicrous that we are at the end of term, the final day for any school in England is tomorrow, and you are sitting here today and you can’t tell us any more detail about what might happen on the 4 or 5 January next year?”
Acland-Hood said: “I entirely accept that this is very difficult for people.”
Hillier replied: “It’s not just difficult, it’s impossible. If a school is breaking up tomorrow and that means pupils and teachers and other staff will not be in school next week, how are they expected to plan for any changes in January?”
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said ministers were treating teachers with “contempt” by making such late changes.
“Today’s announcement by government, made on the last day of term, demonstrates ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action in response to the exponential rise in Covid-19 infection rates among secondary school pupils,” Bousted said.
Meanwhile the first results from an ongoing government study that will seek to understand how schools experience Covid-19 found that rates among students were no higher than teachers and those in primaries were half that of secondaries.
About 1.24% of pupils and 1.29% of staff tested positive for Covid-19 during a period they were tested between 3-19 November, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) study. The participants were all asymptomatic.
The survey, which was not designed to be representative of England as a whole and was skewed towards areas with higher rates, found that 27.6% of the schools had one current infection, 27.6% had between two and five current infections, and 44.8% had no current infections.
“The very early finding of this investigation suggests the infection rates in schools are closely linked to community infection rates,” said Dr Shamez Ladhani, consultant paediatrician at PHE and the study’s chief investigator.
At the Downing Street lobby briefing the prime minister’s spokesman said: “The start of the term won’t be delayed, but what we are doing is asking secondary schools and colleges to operate a staggered return supported by full-time remote education during the first week of term, with in-person teaching in full starting on 11 January.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: England’s secondary school pupils face staggered return after Christmas | Schools