Government abandons plans for all primary school pupils to return before the summer
The government has u-turned on its plans to have all primary school pupils in England return to school and spend four weeks in education before the summer holidays.
Head teachers and unions had long doubted that the plans were practical given how social distancing would limit class capacity, and the government has now given schools themselves the “flexibility” to decide whether or not to bring back more pupils, and there will no longer be pressure applied to head teachers and school governors.
ASCL head teachers’ union chief Geoff Barton said: "The 'ambition' to bring back all primary year groups for a month before the end of the summer term was a case of the government over-promising something that wasn't deliverable.
"It isn't possible to do that while maintaining small class sizes and social bubbles.”
Schools have remained open through the pandemic to accommodate vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers only. The phased reopening of schools commenced at the beginning of June, with Reception, Year One and Year Six pupils the first to return.
During Monday’s daily coronavirus briefing from Downing Street, health secretary Matt Hancock said that secondary schools may not reopen fully until September at the earliest. However, Year 10 and 12 pupils within secondary schools will begin returning to school for limited numbers of classes from June 15.
In the wake of the government’s decision, pupils from other primary school groups are likely to follow suit in returning no earlier than September, or even for some time after.
While recognising that a prolonged period out of school is a problem and could widen the education gap for youngsters for disadvantaged backgrounds, care minister Helen Whately said that the government wanted to avoid “taking risks that might increase the infection rates”.
Meanwhile, Commons Education Committee chairman Robert Halfon has urged the government to draw up a national plan to enable schools to reopen as soon as possible, with 40 per cent of class time likely to be lost this year for the majority of pupils.
Halfon told BBC Radio Four: "I think we're a strange country in which we turn a blind eye to mass demonstrations all over in every city, we campaign for pubs and cafes to open and yet we say to open schools before September is too risky when all the evidence... suggests otherwise.”
Addressing the possible issue of school budgets being used to cover social distancing provisions, Halfon said: "If schools need extra funding in order to make sure their classrooms are social distancing, than government should provide that funding," he said.
Responding to the news, the National Association of Head Teachers’ Paul Whiteman said: "We're pleased to see the government will not force the impossible”.
The numbers of pupils returning to primary school is thought to have increased since the beginning of June, but safety concerns still remain, with unions believing that it is still too soon to return risk free, while some local authorities have decided to push return dates back.
Meanwhile, schools in Wales are set to reopen from June 29 for all age groups with class periods reduced, and Scottish schools will reopen on August 11.
In Northern Ireland, pupils preparing for exams and those readying to move on from primary school will return in August, while the remaining year groups will gradually begin returning in September.