Closing schools for extra week was ‘right thing to do’, Gavin Williamson says

Gavin Williamson has defended the delayed reopening of secondary schools (Picture: ITV/REX)

The Education Secretary has defended delaying the reopening of secondary schools at such short notice, to prevent a mutant Covid variant spreading among classrooms.

Yesterday Gavin Williamson announced pupils facing exams in Years 11 and 13 will return on January 11, a week later than planned.

All other year groups will return on January 18, again a week later, which the Government hopes will buy time for schools to roll-out mass testing for their return.

More than 85% of primary schools are due to re-open on January 4 as planned, but a small number in tier four areas will remain closed, except for vulnerable pupils and children of key workers, for the time being.

When asked whether he apologised to parents, teachers and children for such short notice being given for the new measures, Williamson told Sky News: ‘I think we all recognise that if we go back a few weeks where there was no new variant of Covid, none of us would have been expecting us to be having to take the actions, whether it’s in regards to schools, whether it’s in regards to tier four moves that the Government has had to make, but it’s the Government that’s having to respond at incredible pace to a global pandemic and then a new variant of that virus.

‘It’s not what any of us would want to do, it’s not a decision that any of us would be wanting to have to implement, but we’ve had to do that because circumstances have dictated it.

‘I think the British public expect the Government to do what is right and even though that is sometimes uncomfortable, it is taking the right actions, dealing with these extraordinary times.’

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Outlining the reasons behind plans to open the majority of primary schools, the Education Secretary said: ‘The work that was done with the Department of Health who identified areas where it was either a very high rate or, using their latest data, were seeing very sharp increases in the number of cases or equally the pressures on hospitals in that area and the clinical needs.

‘These were all the considerations that were taken into account but what I want to say, and this will come as no surprise to you whatsoever, I want to see schools, any school, that’s closed for those first two weeks, opening at the earliest possible opportunity.’

Williamson said he is ‘absolutely confident’ that secondary schools will be able to run a mass testing regime with an extra week to prepare.

He added: ‘In terms of secondary year groups, the reason that we have moved that back is so we give all schools, every single school, every single college that teaches secondary-age pupils the opportunity to roll out a mass testing regime, making sure we root out this coronavirus.

The Government had faced pressure to delay the reopening of schools for safety reasons (Picture: Getty Images)

‘It’s not just about making it safer for pupils, it’s not just about making it safer for those who work in schools, but actually it’s about rooting out coronavirus in our communities and we did need to give schools a little bit extra time.’

Asked if a week was enough time to prepare for a functioning mass testing system, Mr Williamson said: ‘We are absolutely confident that it is, we’ll be seeing all the testing equipment that is needed for schools being delivered on the 4th January, schools have already had notice of the guidance of what they need to do, they’ve also had notification of the extra £78 million that we’re offering.’

The Education Secretary added that 1,500 members of the armed forces will be supporting schools in ‘exceptional cases’ who are facing problems.

He added: ‘At every stage we’re making sure that children are able to benefit from getting a brilliant education that we want all our children to get.’

Insisting exams will go head in the summer, Williamson told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘Yes – that’s why we took the move to keep those children who are in those exam cohorts – those exam years, so Year 11 and Year 13 – still coming into school from January 11.

‘Making sure that the first ones back into school, into secondary schools, even in those areas that have those extra restrictions that are imposed on them, those children will still be going into school, still be studying.

‘They will be getting remote education from January 4 but they will going in for face-to-face teaching on January 11.’

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