UK education secretary Gavin Williamson has promised that children preparing to return to school in England will face far less disruption this year due to Covid-19 vaccinations, mass testing and new guidance to reduce the number of pupils who are sent home.
Williamson told the Financial Times that the government also hoped to expand vaccinations beyond the 16 to 17 age group to younger children in an effort to further suppress coronavirus.
“We want to see children back in the classroom; we don’t want to see the same level of disruption,” he said, seeking to draw a line under a year when his department was widely criticised for policy U-turns on school lockdowns. “My hope is that, combined with the mass testing we’re doing, children aren’t going to be in the situation of having to self-isolate.”
However, Williamson’s optimistic outlook was tempered by warnings from educators and teaching unions that children will inevitably face some disruption as they recover from a year of heavily interrupted schooling.
Among the main concerns are the impact that an anticipated surge in Covid cases will have on teachers’ availability, the shortage of tutors to help children catch up lost learning and continued uncertainty about how examinations will be conducted next summer.
Children returning to secondary school this September will take two in-school Covid lateral flow tests during their first week, and then be asked to self-test at home twice a week thereafter.
New guidance to schools has also removed the need for “bubbles” of pupils that caused widespread disruption. This peaked at the end of the last academic year when 750,000 children were sent home as a result of 40,000 positive cases.
Now, under new government guidelines that mirror those for adults, only children who test positive will be sent home, with close contacts able to remain in school unless they also test positive.
Williamson said the rules had changed because of the impact of the vaccination programme. “There isn’t any reason why schools should be sending children home in those types of numbers,” he said.
But James Bowen, director of policy at NAHT, the headteachers’ union, warned that disruption was still likely, particularly if large numbers of teachers tested positive for the disease.
“We know that even those who have been double jabbed can still catch the virus,” he said.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, also welcomed the new plans, but queried why the government had dropped measures such as mask-wearing. She also questioned the value of expecting children to self-test at home.
“They’ve divested themselves of key safety measures and are relying on testing, and children self-testing, which we know doesn’t really work. We want schools to be safe, but the government needs to make that happen, not just wish it was so,” she said.
The government is trying to boost awareness of the need for children to keep testing following the start of term, launching a publicity campaign featuring Matt Richards, gold medal-winning swimmer at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Schools that experience a surge in cases — measured as five positive cases who are likely to have mixed closely over a 10-day period — will be required to implement a “contingency framework” that includes reinstating mask-wearing, additional testing and opening more windows.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that his members were broadly supportive of the new guidance, but that the overall situation remained highly uncertain.
“The government will need to be ready to respond if there is a big increase in case numbers,” he said.
Scientists and public health experts are clear that 8.9m children returning to school in England will accelerate transmission of the virus. A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that children have three times as many close contacts in school than during the holidays.
Williamson said he was pushing for vaccinations for under-16s to reduce the risk of infection. “We’re seeing the rollout of the vaccine for 16 to 17-year-olds, I very much hope and want to see that offered more widely,” he said.
In a sign of the potential pressures, case rates among under-19s have doubled in Scotland since most schools returned on August 18, rising to 721 cases per 100,000 in the week to August 23. Total daily cases in Scotland on Friday surged past 6,000 for the first time during the pandemic.
But while it is unclear how far new cases will rise in England above August daily rates of 20,000 to 30,000, experts are largely confident that the virus can be kept in check sufficiently to keep schools open.
Chris Jarvis, a member of the government’s Spi-M pandemic modelling group, said that large-scale lateral flow testing, aided by existing levels of immunity among children and teachers, could “stop infections getting out of control”.
“We might see some individual schools close, but that can happen in a normal year with norovirus,” said Sunil Bhopal, a clinical lecturer in population health paediatrics at Newcastle University. “I think the government has truly accepted that in-person schooling must be the last domino to fall if any large-scale restrictions are reintroduced.”
Any surge in infections is also likely to affect the extent to which children are able to catch up on lost learning.
Kevan Collins, who resigned in June as the government’s education recovery lead after ministers did not commit the £15bn he had recommended, said teachers needed more support to manage big differences in progress within classes on top of delivering on the promise to roll out 100m hours of tutoring to help children recover learning.
“We really need to lean into it and I’m not really seeing that yet,” he said. “We can have great intentions, but will the implementation happen?”
But amid all the many “known unknowns” of the coming school year, all educational leaders agreed that the government should at least clear up one uncertainty — the shape of next year’s A-level and GCSE exam system.
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Community Trust, which runs 52 schools, was among several leaders who said that children needed to know how far curriculums would be truncated and what the mix of public exams and teacher assessments would be.
“The government is working on this behind closed doors, but for every child doing A-levels and GCSEs, their exams are not something that will happen next year, they start next week. It is only fair, for their mental wellbeing, that every child should know at the outset of the year what the goal is,” he said.