Education Settings: Wider Opening - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 11th June 2020.

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The following Statement was made on Tuesday 9 June in the House of Commons.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement regarding the wider opening of nurseries, schools and colleges as part of our response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is now over two and a half months since we asked schools, further education colleges and nurseries to remain open only for vulnerable children and those of critical workers. I continue to be immensely grateful for the way that our teachers and parents have responded to these challenging circumstances. I would like to say a big thank you to all those working in education, childcare and children’s social care for the huge efforts they are making on a daily basis to support families and make sure our children do not miss out on their education.

We all know how important it is for children and young people to be in education and childcare, and it is vital that we get them back there as soon as the scientific advice indicates that we can. I am very pleased that last week we were able to take the first cautious step towards that. As the Prime Minister confirmed on 28 May, the Government’s five tests are being met and we are beginning to ease the lockdown restrictions across England. Based on all the evidence, this means that nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, have been able to welcome back children of all ages. Pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 have been returning in smaller class sizes, alongside the children of critical workers and vulnerable children of all ages, who continue to be able to attend.

Ninety-seven per cent of schools that submitted data to the Department for Education were open at the end of last week. Last week, we saw the number of primaries taking nursery, reception, year 1 or year 6 pupils steadily rise as part of the phased, cautious wider reopening of schools. By the end of the week, more than half of primary schools were taking pupils from these year groups, and as of yesterday that had risen to over 70% of primaries that had responded.

I know that schools need time to put in place the strict protective measures that we have asked for, and we continue to work with the sector to make sure that any schools experiencing difficulties are supported to open more widely as soon as possible. Some schools, in areas such as the north-west, are concerned about local rates of transmission. I can assure them that SAGE’s R estimate for the whole of the UK is below 1. If robust data shows that local action needs to be taken, we will not hesitate to do so, but we are not in that position. I know that the House will be as impressed as I have been by the work and efforts of head teachers, teachers and childcare staff, who are finding ways to make the necessary changes while still ensuring that schools and nurseries are a welcoming place for children, as well as reassuring families who may be worried about sending their children back.

The next step of our phased approach will enable secondary schools and colleges to provide some face-to-face support from 15 June for years 10 and 12 and 16-to-19 students in the first year of a two-year study programme, who are due to take key exams next year. This is such a critical time for those students and this extra support will be in addition to their remote education, which will continue to be the main method of education for them this term, as only a quarter of this cohort will be able to attend at any one time to limit the risk of transmission. Children of critical workers and vulnerable children in all secondary year groups will continue to be able to attend full-time.

We have published guidance for secondary schools and ensured that schools have the flexibility to decide how they want to use face-to-face support in the best interests of their pupils. Since the announcement of our proposals on 10 May, my department has published detailed guidance for settings on how to prepare. This includes planning guides for early years providers and primary schools, and further guidance for secondary schools and colleges. Crucially, we have provided detailed guidance on the protective measures that schools and other settings need to take to reduce the risk of transmission. This includes restricting class sizes, limiting mixing between groups and encouraging regular handwashing and frequent cleaning. This advice was developed in close consultation with Public Health England.

The safety of our children, young people and staff remains my top priority. That is why all staff and children, including the under-fives, will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus. This will enable the right response where a case is confirmed, including using a “test and trace” approach to rapidly identify people most at risk of having been exposed to the virus, so that they can take action too.

We continue to follow the best scientific advice and believe that this cautious, phased return is the most sensible course of action to take. While we are not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer, we continue to work with the sector on the next steps, where we would like schools that have the capacity to bring back more children—in those smaller class sizes—to do so if they are able to before the summer holidays.

We will be working to bring all children back to school in September. I know that students who are due to take exams in 2021 will have experienced considerable disruption to their education this year, and we are committed to doing all we can to minimise the effects of this. Exams will take place next year, and we are working with Ofqual and the exam boards on our approach to these. While these are the first steps, they are the best way to ensure that all children can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.

I want to end by thanking the childcare, school and FE staff who have gone above and beyond over the past eight weeks, and who are now working so incredibly hard to welcome our children and young people back, while also continuing to support those who remain at home. I commend this Statement to the House.”