Gavin Williamson plans phased reopening

Back to school by Easter… for some: Gavin Williamson plans phased reopening as move to get children back to classrooms after half term is abandoned

  • Plans drawn by Gavin Williamson could see phased return to school by Easter     
  • Source said Mr Williamson pushing for full return  at the ‘earliest opportunity’
  • Initial focus likely to be on youngest pupils who are hardest to teach remotely

A phased return to school could begin before Easter under plans being drawn up by Gavin Williamson.

The Education Secretary is expected to confirm this week that hopes of a full return immediately after the half-term break next month have been abandoned.

Ministers have hinted that the reopening of schools could be delayed until after Easter – or even until May – prompting fury from many Conservative MPs.

Boris Johnson ducked questions about the issue yesterday. But Whitehall sources said last night that Mr Williamson has ordered officials to draw up options for the return of at least some classes and year groups before Easter if the pandemic eases.

Gavin Williamson is drawing up plans for a phased return to school which could begin before Easter. Pictured: Children arrive at Manor Park School and Nursery in Knutsford, Cheshire, earlier this month 

Whitehall sources said last night that Education Secretary had ordered officials to draw up options for the return of at least some classes and year groups before Easter 

The initial focus is likely to be on the youngest primary pupils who are hardest to teach remotely, and on older children in exam years.

Options to allow a return to school in areas where the virus has declined most sharply could also be considered, although a national restart is favoured.

A source said Mr Williamson was pushing for a full return of all schools at the ‘earliest opportunity’, but added: ‘If there is a chance to get some classes back then obviously we would take it.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, suggested a phased reopening was likely.

‘Everybody is currently talking about the need to fully reopen schools as soon as possible, but what we actually need is a proper plan for doing so,’ he said.

‘The obvious solution is to widen opening in a careful and phased manner, perhaps through the use of rotas or prioritising certain year groups first of all, checking the impact on coronavirus rates as we go, and building gradually to full opening.’

Ofsted warned that many children are struggling to stay focused on their studies, with home learning ‘a poor replacement for normal classroom practice’. It said disruption is likely to continue for some time, even when schools return.

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: ‘While remote education will help to mitigate the learning lost when children are out of the classroom, it’s clear that pupils’ motivation and engagement remains an issue.

‘This, along with the pressure remote learning places on teachers and parents, is proving a real barrier to children’s learning and development.’

Boris Johnson ducked questions about the issue of a phased return of schools yesterday

A poll by the website Mumsnet found that 62 per cent of parents want their children back in the classroom after half term.

However, even a limited return would have to be signed off by chief medical officer Chris Whitty, whose decision to put the UK into the highest level of Covid alert at the start of this month triggered the latest lockdown.

The revelation came as Tory MPs stepped up pressure on ministers to set out a timetable for the return of schools, with six more signing up to parents’ pressure group UsforThem, which is pushing for a full reopening.

Pauline Latham, one of 17 Tory MPs backing the group, said: ‘We need a roadmap out of school closures and fast. 

Mums and dads are having to put hours into home schooling, while trying to keep jobs in tough economic conditions, and many children who were already suffering disadvantage before the pandemic may never catch up with their peers, keeping them locked into disadvantage for the rest of their lives. This cannot continue.’

Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, said the reopening of schools should be accelerated, even if it means restrictions on other parts of society have to be tightened further.

The Prime Minister sparked a flurry of speculation by hinting that some virus restrictions could be eased before mid-February.

Visiting an AstraZeneca vaccination centre at Barnet football club in north London, Mr Johnson said the hope is to inoculate the 15million most vulnerable by February 15, adding: ‘But before then we’ll be looking at the potential of relaxing some measures.’  

However, No 10 later stressed that no lockdown measures would be eased before that date and played down the prospect of an early return to school.

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