English secondary schools unlikely to fully open until mid-January at earliest

Secondary schools in England are unlikely to fully reopen until after mid-January at the earliest, according to new plans being thrashed out within government that would also see school staff be given high priority for Covid vaccinations.

According to government sources, ministers are torn between heeding its scientific advisers over the rapid spread of the new Covid variant, and warnings from the Department for Education that switching to remote learning for the whole of January would make it hard for schools and colleges to reopen again before Easter, jeopardising next year’s exams.

The revised timetable being discussed would see only older students who are taking exams, such as A-levels and GCSEs, receiving remote teaching for the week from 4 January, effectively giving most secondary pupils an extra week’s holiday while schools and colleges gear up to carry out mass testing.

For the week beginning 11 January, those taking exams, mainly years 11 and 13, would be allowed back in the classroom while others were taught remotely, followed by all year groups returning in person from 18 January.

Primary schools are unlikely to be affected, and would return according to their normal timetable. Vulnerable secondary-aged children would be able to return to school premises from 4 January, regardless of year group.

Boris Johnson is said to be considering the proposals and the final decision is likely to be announced on Wednesday alongside the tier review for England and more data on the national infection rate.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We haven’t had any contact from the government since Christmas about whether or not the spring term will go ahead as planned, and it has been intensely frustrating that there has been a swirl of speculation with no clarity and with less than a week before term begins.

“We are expecting to speak with the government shortly and we will be pressing for schools and colleges to be given clear guidance as soon as possible.”

The government is also likely to reveal that school staff, including teachers, would be moved into a higher priority group to receive Covid vaccinations, but still below NHS workers and the most vulnerable groups.

“We would very much welcome any plans to prioritise school and college staff for Covid vaccinations because they are being asked to go into an environment which is inherently busy and crowded. Vaccinations would give them extra reassurance, reduce the need for staff to self-isolate, and mean less disruption,” Barton said.

The new timetable effectively pushes back the government’s plans for a staggered start by a further week compared with the plans it announced before Christmas.

The DfE will also recommit to regular mass testing of asymptomatic school staff and secondary school and college students. The government is expecting secondary schools and colleges to recruit and organise volunteers to conduct testing, while those unable to do so will require 10-days self-isolation for staff and students before returning to school.

The government has promised head teachers the assistance of 1,500 military personnel to prepare for the mass testing regime already announced. But with nearly 4,000 secondary schools and colleges in England, in most cases the direct help will be limited to phone and video calls.

The debates within Whitehall were given fresh urgency after advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that the rate of infections could spiral out of control unless schools are closed for the whole of January.

The new timetable supported by the DfE is seen as treading a fine line between extended school closures, which would imperil the sitting of GCSEs and other exams in summer, and the demands to tackle the spread of infection. But concerns remain over how parents and teachers will react to minimal closures, with fears that both groups could vote with their feet and stay away while the virus remains unchecked.

The prime minister’s spokesman said on Tuesday: “We’re still planning for a staggered opening of schools and we’re working to ensure testing is in place.

“But as we’ve said throughout the pandemic, we obviously keep all measures under constant review.”

Pressed on whether all parents could be assured there would be no changes to the timetable next week, the spokesman insisted the government was “planning for a staggered opening of schools” but reasserted that all measures were under review.

Asked if there were any plans for education staff to be prioritised for the vaccine after teaching union leaders called for them to receive jabs alongside health workers, the spokesman said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation had clearly set out the first phase of those who should receive the vaccine. “We’ve always been clear that we need to ensure that we provide the vaccine to those who are seen to be the most clinically vulnerable and that’s what we’re doing,” he added.


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