Gavin Williamson – 2020 Statement to the House of Commons about Return to Education in January

The statement made by Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, in the House of Commons on 30 December 2020.

With permission, I would like to make a statement regarding our plans for bringing children back to school this academic term.

Dealing with this pandemic has always been an exercise in managing risk. Throughout, we have been adamant that the education of children is an absolute priority and that keeping schools open is uppermost in all our plans.

The magnificent efforts of all the leaders, teachers and staff in all our schools and colleges have ensured that settings are as safe and covid secure as possible, but we must always act swiftly when circumstances change. The evidence about the new covid variant and rising infection rates has required some immediate adjustment to our plans for the new term. This is, of course, a rapidly shifting situation, but some things remain constant. We continue to act to preserve lives and safeguard the national health service, and we continue to protect education by putting children first. Above all, our response is proportionate to the risk at hand and makes every use of the contingency framework that we put in place earlier this year.

The latest study we have from Public Health England is that covid infections among children are triggered by changes in the community rate. The study also says that the wider impact of school closures on children’s development would be significant. I am quite clear that we must continue to do all we can to keep children in school. Taking all those factors into account means that we have had to make a number of changes for the new term in order to help break chains of transmission and to assist with keeping all our children and education settings as safe as we can. The fact that we have managed to do that so successfully throughout the entire pandemic is due to the incredible dedication of all our teachers, leaders and support staff, and I know that the House will join me once more in thanking them for everything that they continue to do to keep children learning as safely as possible.

Accordingly, we will be opening the majority of primary schools as planned on Monday 4 January. We know how vital it is for our younger children to be in school for their education, wellbeing and wider development. In a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest, we will implement our existing contingency framework such that only vulnerable children and children of critical workers will attend face-to-face. We will publish that list of areas today on the website.

I would like to emphasise that this is being used only as a last resort. This is not all tier 4 areas and the overwhelming majority of primary schools will open as planned on Monday. The areas will also be reviewed regularly, so that schools can reopen at the very earliest moment. Ongoing testing for primary school staff will follow later in January and we will be working to establish an ambitious testing programme, helping to break chains of transmission and reducing the need for self-isolation where students and staff test negative for the virus.

We have already announced our intention for a staggered return to education this term for secondary age pupils and those in colleges. Because the covid infection rate is particularly high among this age group, we will allow more time so that every school and college is able to fully roll out testing for all its pupils and staff. I would like to thank school leaders and staff for all their ongoing work in preparing that. This kind of mass testing will help to protect not just children and young people; it will benefit everyone in the community. It will break the chains of transmission that are making infection rates shoot up. That, in turn, will make it safer for more children to physically return to school.

All pupils in exam years are to return during the week beginning 11 January, with all secondary school and college students returning full time on 18 January. During the first week of term after 4 January, secondary schools and colleges will prepare to test as many staff and students as possible, and will be open only to vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

The 1,500 military personnel committed to supporting schools and colleges will remain on task, providing virtual training and advice on establishing the testing process, with teams on standby to provide in-person support if schools require it. Testing will then begin in earnest the following week, with those who are in exam years at the head of the queue. This is in preparation for the full return of all pupils in all year groups on 18 January in most areas. To allow this focus on the establishment of testing throughout the first week of term, exam year groups will continue to have lessons remotely, in line with what they would receive in class, and only vulnerable children and the children of critical workers will have face-to-face teaching.

As with primary schools, we will apply our existing contingency framework for education in areas of the country with very high rates of covid infection or transmission of the virus. This will require secondary schools and colleges to offer face-to-face education only to exam years, vulnerable children and the children of critical workers, with remote education for all other students if they are in one of the contingency framework areas. We are also asking universities to reduce the number of students who return to campus at the start of January, prioritising students who require practical learning to gain their professional qualifications. All university students should be offered two rapids tests on return to reduce the chance of covid being spread.

To support remote education and online learning during this period, the Government expect to deliver more than 50,000 devices to schools throughout the country on 4 January alone, and more than 100,000 altogether during the first week of term. That is in addition to the 560,000 devices that have already been delivered, as we continue to aim for a target of distributing more than 1 million devices for the children who need them most. The programme is now being extended to include students aged 16 to 19 in colleges and schools.

So often, we have had to close things down to try to beat this awful disease, but with schools our best line of attack is to keep them open, using the mass-testing tools that we now have available to ensure that children are able to continue to gain the benefit of a world-class education. As we continue to hear more encouraging news about the vaccine roll-out, I am more determined than ever that children will not have to pay the price for beating covid. I have spoken many times of my determination that we cannot let covid damage the life chances of an entire year of children and students. With these plans, which allow for rapid testing and the controlled return of schools, I am confident that we can minimise the latest health risks posed by the virus. I commend this statement to the House.