Williamson warns councils and unions not to block the return of pupils

Don’t scupper schools: Gavin Williamson warns councils and unions not to block the return of pupils and insists they have full-time education from September – with parents facing fines for children’s non-attendance

  • Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has warned parents and teaching unions not to block school return
  • He insisted children must have full-time education in England from September amid fears of lost progress
  • Plans to limit the risk of Covid-19 includes forming ‘bubbles’ which unions have critcised as ‘mind-boggling’ 
  • All pupils in a year group may have to isolate if there are two or more confirmed virus cases within a fortnight 

Gavin Williamson yesterday warned councils, parents and teaching unions not to block the return to school.

The Education Secretary insisted youngsters must have full-time education in England from September.

He signalled a clampdown on councils and schools that refuse to welcome all year groups back, with parents facing fines for children’s non-attendance.

The hardline stance comes amid plans for primary and secondary schools to form mega ‘bubbles’ – which will see pupils kept in classes or year groups – to minimise the spread of coronavirus.

Unions have criticised the plans, with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), claiming the concept is ‘mind-boggling’.

Britain’s Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, pictured above speaking during a remote press conference on June 2 to update the nation on the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, has said that unions and councils must not block schools from reopening in September

But Mr Williamson told MPs: ‘Those who stand in the way of children being able to return to school are standing in the way of the best interests of those children who are from the most deprived backgrounds and need the most help and the most support.

‘That is why we’ll get every child back in the new term.’

Some councils previously refused to open primary schools to certain age groups from June 1 due to safety fears. 

At the Downing Street press conference last night, Mr Williamson said the Government had already been forced to tell some local authorities that it would use its ‘powers to ensure that all schools open up for those pupils in those year groups’.

Under the plans announced yesterday, a whole school, or all pupils in a year group, may have to self-isolate at home if there are two or more confirmed coronavirus cases within a fortnight.

All schools and colleges will get a small number of home testing kits. Mobile units could be dispatched to test anyone who has been in contact with a child, or member of staff, who has tested positive.

Current restrictions on group sizes will be lifted to allow schools, colleges and nurseries to reopen fully. Limits on group sizes will also be lifted in nurseries, childminders, and other early years providers in England.

Head teachers must stagger start and finish times, as well as lunch and breaks, arrange classrooms with forward-facing desks and impose behaviour regimes to cope with a possible rise in unruly pupils.

They should encourage children to walk or cycle to school if possible and consider using ‘walking buses’ to reduce the use of public transport.

Schools have also been told to avoid large gatherings, such as assemblies. Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said: ‘The logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school, including whole year groups comprising hundreds of pupils, is mind-boggling.

‘School leaders will have to consider implementing staggered starts, finishes and lunchtimes, alongside transport to and from school, on an epic scale.’

Currently, head teachers must stagger start and finish times, as well as lunch and breaks, to limit children coming into contact with too many fellow pupils. Pictured above, children play with hula-hoops as teachers explain social distancing at Ysgol Hafan Y Mor school, as schools in Wales reopen

In September, current restrictions on group sizes will be lifted to allow schools, colleges and nurseries to reopen fully. Above, a year six classroom as some children returned to the school as the coronavirus lockdown eases in Fulham

Fines for parents if children don’t go back in September 

Sending children to school will be ‘mandatory’ again in September after the rules were eased during full lockdown, it was confirmed today. 

Parents will face £60 fines if their offspring fail to attend when the autumn term begins. 

However, Downing Street said there would be some ‘discretion’ for headteachers over whether parents were fined. 

‘Returning to school in September will be mandatory. 

‘It’s always the case that headteachers do have some discretion. They know their pupils and their family situations,’ the PM’s spokesman said.

‘But, in general, children need to get back in to school and get back learning again.’ 

Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Education Union, said the government guidance is ‘unlikely’ to address the concerns of school leaders, teachers, support staff and parents.

He said: ‘School leaders need clear guidance based on scientific evidence, but instead they are confronted by a Government which is rushing through ideas that seem more based on hope than on science.’

GCSE exams could be delayed next year with a reduced curriculum and more optional questions.

Exam regulator Ofqual is also proposing pushing back the A-level exam schedule by weeks to help teenagers catch up with missed studies.

Unions warned they were not yet satisfied the reopening was safe, and demanded the government comes up with a ‘Plan B’ in case virus cases rise. 

Mr Williamson told MPs in the commons on Wednesday that while he was constantly talking to unions, they could not ‘dictate’ policy, insisting ‘education recovery is critical for this generation’ and children must have the ‘opportunity to thrive and fulfil their full potential’. 

‘Returning to normal educational routines as quickly as possible is critical to our national recovery too,’ he said. 

Later during the Downing Street press conference, he said: ‘As we move into September we are working very closely with the sector. I have absolute confidence right across the board that everyone accepts the fact that we have got to deliver full time education for every child in this country.

‘But if we are not in a situation where people are operating and opening schools we will have to take very specific action to ensure that they do.’   

In the event that the situation in schools becomes serious and they are forced to close again, guidance states that the curriculum must ‘remain broad and ambitious’, and ensure that ‘all pupils continue to be taught a wide range of subjects, maintaining their choices for further study and employment’. 

But it says teachers should ‘make use of existing flexibilities to create time to cover the most important missed content’. 

‘Substantial modification to the curriculum may be needed at the start of the year, so teaching time should be prioritised to address significant gaps in pupils’ knowledge with the aim of returning to the school’s normal curriculum content by no later than summer term 2021,’ the guidance said.  

Government tells parents they will just need to ‘control their teenagers’ outside of school hours to stop youngsters catching coronavirus 

Hard-pressed parents juggling childcare and work were told to ‘control your teenagers’ tonight as the Government pushed ahead with plans to force schools to reopen fully in September.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said that schoolchildren, especially older ones, were more likely to contract coronavirus by hanging out with friends than they were in classrooms.

She spoke as the Government finally revealed its plans to return to a full school year in September. 

Guidance published today states that whole year groups – potentially hundreds of children – can form ‘bubbles’ in secondary schools, while in primaries the maximum limit is being doubled to more than 30.

Social distancing rules can be dropped within the bubbles to ensure there is capacity for all, and parents will face fines if they refuse to send their children.

However, large numbers of pupils could be ordered to self-isolate if just two pupils test positive in a fortnight and entire schools could be shut.   

Speaking at a Government press conference called to allow questions on the plans, Dr Harries said: ‘What the guidance that the DfE has developed has done is worked with PHE to ensure it is not just guidance about what is happening in schools but it is about things like transport, around advising families to, if you like, control their teenagers when they are outside coming in. 

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said that schoolchildren, especially older ones, were more likely to contract coronavirus by hanging out with mates than they were in classrooms

‘In fact the original guidance recognised that the transmission risk was potentially more in the social behaviours of the teenagers – the older children – out of school than they potentially were in school.

‘School is quite a controlled environment and perhaps trying to encourage families as well – I know it is difficult because I have been there – but to try and control their teenagers in their social interactions outside school as well.’

She added: ‘In many ways we should be more concerned with what the teenagers are doing outside school. 

‘So if they are in school, in a controlled environment, with hierarchies of control and people keeping an eye on them if you like, that’s probably a much lower risk than if they were out of school doing their own thing.’

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the school attended by his two teenage daughters had more control over them than he has ‘ever been able to achieve’.

He also said the rise in cases in Leicester was ‘not something about schools returning’. 

Gavin Williamson told the Downing Street press conference this evening that the Government would force councils and headteachers to reopen schools to all pupils in September

‘As we move into September we are working very closely with the sector. I have absolute confidence right across the board that everyone accepts the fact that we have got to deliver full time education for every child in this country,’ Williamson said, warning schools and councils not to block to opening of schools in September.

‘But if we are not in a situation where people are operating and opening schools we will have to take very specific action to ensure that they do.’    

Public Health England (PHE) said earlier this week that the proportion of people aged under 19 testing positive for the virus in the city had risen from five per cent in mid-May to a current level of around 15 per cent.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that even though children are less likely to get ill from the disease, the decision to shut Leicester’s schools was made to try to halt further transmissions.

Meanwhile Mr Williamson told the Downing Street press conference this evening that the Government would force councils and headteachers to reopen schools to all pupils in September if they tried to refuse to do so.

He said: ‘As we move into September we are working very closely with the sector. I have absolute confidence right across the board that everyone accepts the fact that we have got to deliver full time education for every child in this country.

‘But if we are not in a situation where people are operating and opening schools we will have to take very specific action to ensure that they do.’  

Under the new arrangements, primary schools will be able to operate ‘bubbles’ of more than 30 children, allowing the return of full classes. 

Secondary schools, where children move between classes, could operate ‘whole year bubbles’ of more than 200 children. 

 Every school in England will reopen ‘come what may’ in September – with sources insisting even if the R rate surges other parts of society will be closed down first to facilitate the move

A child uses a laptop in a classroom at Roath Park Primary School in Cardiff, Wales on June 29, as schools reopen in Britain

More details are expected to be set out by Mr Williamson at a Downing Street press conference later – the first time one has been held since daily briefings were scrapped last week. 

Mr Williamson said the coronavirus precautions would include ‘as a minimum, keeping whole year groups in schools and colleges separate’.

‘This is in addition to the other protective measures we know are so important for infection control, such as regular cleaning and hand washing.’   

Mr Williamson told the Commons: ‘By the start of the autumn term we will provide all schools and colleges with a small number of testing kits. These will be taken home by children or staff who develop symptoms while on site but who would struggle to access a testing centre. This is so that they can have a test quickly and that they can get results back quickly.

‘All schools will have direct access to support and advice from their local Public Health England health protection team to deal with any cases that may occur. They will be advised on what steps need to be taken.’

GCSEs could be delayed next year and pupils get more choice of questions 

GCSE exams could be delayed next year and more optional questions could be adopted in test papers under proposals unveiled by England’s exams regulator.

Ofqual has launched a two-week consultation on its plans for the GCSE and A-level exam series in 2021 after students have faced months of school and college closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The watchdog is considering how next year’s exam timetable could be changed to allow more time for teaching – and it is proposing delaying the start of the GCSE exam series to June 7, after the half-term break.

Ofqual is looking at using ‘content sampling’ in question papers and using more optional questions in a number of subjects at GCSE – apart from English language, English literature, maths and the sciences.

The watchdog is also proposing removing the need for GCSE students to undertake science practicals and it has suggested that work relating to GCSE geography fieldwork should not be assessed in 2021.

On the reintroduction of fines for parents when children do not attend, he said: ‘It is critical to ensure that no child loses more time in education and that from September all children who can be at school, are at school.

‘Schools and colleges will need to work with families to secure regular attendance from the start of the new academic year with the reintroduction of mandatory attendance.

‘Our intention is that those with education, health and care plans or special educational needs will also be back in school or college in September.’

Downing Street said there would be some ‘discretion’ for headteachers over whether parents were fined. 

‘Returning to school in September will be mandatory. It’s always the case that headteachers do have some discretion. They know their pupils and their family situations,’ the PM’s spokesman said.

‘But, in general, children need to get back in to school and get back learning again.’ 

Labour said getting all children back in September was ‘achievable’, but teaching unions said they were yet to be persuaded the reopening could be done safely. 

NASUWT General Secretary Dr Patrick Roach, said: ‘We want to see all children back in schools as soon as it is safe to do so.

‘Whilst the Government has published this latest guidance, it remains unfortunate that it has still not come forward with a plan to secure public confidence and ensure the safe return of all children to schools in September.

‘Without a clear plan from the Government, there is still a risk of further confusion and uncertainty.

‘The Government’s guidance for the full reopening of schools is predicated on the assumption that virus transmission rates will continue to fall.

‘However, there will be many questions for parents and for teachers and other staff working in schools about safe reopening, which is what we all want to see.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ‘The logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school, including whole year groups comprising hundreds of pupils, is mind-boggling.

‘School leaders will have to consider implementing staggered starts, finishes and lunchtimes, alongside transport to and from school, on an epic scale.’

He added: ‘However, we recognise that the options about how to bring all children back to school in the autumn are limited.’

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added: ‘The situation seen in Leicester this week has demonstrated that this crisis is far from over, and there will be further disruption ahead.

‘It is therefore essential that Government continues to monitor the data when it comes to school return and that it also has a credible Plan B in place should it be required.’ 

Teacher Claire Juniper teaches maths to year six students inside a socially distanced classroom setting in a tent outside on the school playing fields at Llanishen Fach Primary School in Cardiff

Children check their bags in a canopy, which is a makeshift socially distanced cloakroom at Llanishen Fach Primary School in Cardif

Mr Williamson said he had ‘met unions every week all the way through this crisis’ and wanted a ‘dialogue’. 

But he added: ‘This should not be about trade unions dictating what we are doing that is best for our children. 

‘We want to work with trade unions and the whole sector, including staff, to deliver the best education for all children.’ 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: ‘I want all children back in school as quickly as possible, and certainly by September, and I think that’s achievable. I actually think that many more children could be back now if there had been a better plan and better leadership…

‘We’ve been calling for a national plan. We’ll look at the details of this plan. What’s important now is confidence, confidence of teachers and of staff and of parents, and we need to build that confidence.’

Mr Williamson has secured £1billion for a catch-up plan that will allow schools to hire tutors to provide catch-up classes for small groups.

Final sign off for the back-to-school plan will not be given until mid-August, based on an assessment of the state of the epidemic. 

Although children face only a very low risk from the disease, some scientists fear that the reopening of schools could lead to a significant rise in community transmission of the virus.

But a Cabinet source said ministers were determined to reopen schools in September, even if that meant other parts of society have to be shut down.

‘Schools will reopen in September, come what may,’ the source said.

‘Everyone can see how important it is, not just to children’s education but to the ability of parents to get back to work. Obviously we have to see what happens to the epidemic but the plans are there now for a safe return.

‘Hopefully the virus will continue to decline over the summer. But even if the R-number [the number infected by a carrier] is up near one, I think people are clear that schools have to reopen.

‘That might mean something else closing in order to keep the overall risk at an acceptable level, but schools have to reopen.’

Social distancing could be dropped in 200-child ‘bubbles’ to ensure there is capacity at schools 

Social distancing is set to be eased for ‘bubbles’ including hundreds of children to free up capacity in schools.  

Under the new arrangements, primary schools will be able to operate ‘bubbles’ of more than 30 children double the current maximum – allowing the return of full classes.

Secondary schools, where children move between classes, could operate ‘whole year bubbles’ of more than 200 children. 

To mitigate the risk, the need for hand washing will be stressed. 

Pupils will face staggered start, break and finish times, and ‘walking buses’ will be introduced to reduce the use of public transport. 

They will only be permitted to mix within their own ‘bubble’ of peers, and must sit facing the front to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Large gatherings, such as assemblies, will be off the agenda as will singing in groups, such as choirs. 

Mr Williamson is expected to say Ofsted will not begin full school inspections again until January, but visits will be made to a handful of schools. 

Schools have also been told to improve their online resources for home-schooling in case an outbreak forces pupils to self-isolate at home.

Parents have already complained about the variable quality of virtual teaching at different schools, an issue compounded by the Government’s failure to provide 230,000 laptops and tablets for the most disadvantaged pupils. 

New figures show 202,212 laptops were delivered or dispatched to pupils by Tuesday, 88 per cent of the number the education secretary had promised.

It is believed said some devices are being sent out without the passwords needed to access it, and the numbers do not cover every disadvantaged child. 

‘Six are sitting in the office, password protected and can’t get into them,’ one head teacher told the publication.

Another said: ‘We have ours but they are locked with passwords no one will let us have.’

Mr Williamson defended the scheme at an education select committee: ‘We are already in the process of rolling out IT equipment across the school estate, as well as to the most vulnerable children.

‘Some 100,000 of those laptops have already been distributed to the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged children . . . We are on schedule to dis- tribute the full 230,000 computers over the coming month.’

Ministers are now braced for a battle with the education unions over the details of the plans for a full return in September. 

But officials point out that the Government’s Scientific Group for Emergencies has already concluded that teachers are at no higher risk than other professions.   

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