Gavin Williamson – 2020 Statement on Re-opening Schools

Below is the text of the statement made by Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, in the House of Commons on 2 July 2020.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding the full opening of our schools and colleges to all pupils in September.

I know that these past three months have been some of the most challenging that schools, parents and, most of all, children have faced. What schools have achieved to make sure that children and young people are kept safe and can continue to learn during this period is remarkable, and I think all of us in this House are deeply grateful for those efforts. But we all know the impact that lost time in education can have on our children’s outcomes.

Every child and young person in the country has experienced unprecedented disruption to their learning as a result of coronavirus, with those from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds among the hardest hit. Education recovery is critical for this generation of schoolchildren. Returning to normal educational routines as quickly as possible is critical to our national recovery, too. That is why we have been working to ensure that all pupils will be able to go back to schools and colleges full time in September, with covid-secure measures in place, so that they have the opportunity to thrive and fulfil their full potential.

Today, the Government have published detailed plans for nurseries, schools and colleges that set out what is needed to plan for a full return, as well as reassuring parents and carers about what to expect for their children. The guidance has been developed with medical experts from Public Health England and follows regular engagement throughout the outbreak between the Government and the education sector.

We continue to work closely with the country’s best scientific and medical experts to ensure that both children and staff are always as safe as possible. Schools will continue minimising contact between children, including through grouping children together in bubbles and encouraging older children to distance. At a minimum, this will mean keeping whole year groups in schools and colleges separate. This is in addition to the other protective measures that we know are so important for infection control, such as regular cleaning and hand washing. We are also ensuring that testing is readily available, so that parents, teachers and students can return with confidence. All staff, pupils and their families will continue to have access to testing if they develop covid-19 symptoms.

By the start of the autumn term, we will provide all schools and colleges with a small number of home testing kits, which 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 get the results back quickly. All schools will have access to direct 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.

In these challenging times, we are committed to ensuring that the nation’s children have not only a safe education, but an excellent one. From September, we are asking schools and colleges to return to a broad and balanced ​curriculum, so that all pupils continue to be taught in a wide range of subjects, maintaining their choices for further study and employment. We expect exams to go ahead in the summer of 2021. We understand the additional pressures on teaching staff to deliver such high standards of education in this difficult period. As such, as Ofsted inspectors are preparing to visit schools in the autumn, it will be to discuss how they are managing the return to full education of all their pupils. The insight that inspectors gather will also be aggregated nationally to share learning with the whole sector, the Government and the wider public. It is our intention for full inspections to return from January.

We are also providing significant financial support to help pupils catch up on lost learning. As I announced in June, we will be providing a £1 billion covid catch-up package, including a £650 million catch-up premium for state-funded primary, secondary and special schools, and a £350 million national tutoring programme for the most disadvantaged pupils. Evidence shows that six to 12 weeks of tutoring for a disadvantaged pupil can result in five months of catch-up. Schools are held accountable for the outcomes they achieve with their funding, including through Ofsted inspections, and the covid catch-up funding will be no exception to this.

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. Since May, as a result of the pandemic, it has been necessary to modify the duty on local authorities and health commissioners so that they could use their reasonable endeavours to secure or arrange the provision for those on EHC plans. I am committed to removing these flexibilities as soon as possible, so that children and young people can receive the support they need to return to school. As such, unless the evidence changes, I will not be issuing further national notices to modify the EHC duties. We will, however, consider whether any such flexibilities may be required locally, to respond to outbreaks in different parts of the country. In addition, I am pleased to announce that, as we continue on the road to recovery and infection rates continue to fall, from 20 July nurseries, childminders and other childcare providers will no longer be required to place limits on the group size of children who can play and learn together.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank those parts of the sector that have already opened their doors to more children and who are doing a phenomenal job to help our children and young people settle back into their usual routines. Since schools and nurseries began to open more widely on 1 June, we have seen the number of children attending school steadily rise, with over 1.6 million pupils already back in school. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that I will be joined by the House as I express my thanks to all childcare, school and further education staff who have gone above and beyond since March, and who will continue to do so as we prepare to welcome all of our children and young people back to school and college in September. I commend this statement to the House.