School bubbles to end and in-house teaching to remain at universities, Gavin Williamson confirms

‘We recognise the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children’s education,’ minister says

Zoe Tidman
Tuesday 06 July 2021 20:09
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<p>Gavin Williamson tells MPs restrictions will be eased</p>

Gavin Williamson tells MPs restrictions will be eased

The school bubble system is to be dropped and in-person teaching will remain at universities, Gavin Williamson has confirmed.

The education secretary said the bubble system – which has kept pupils and teachers in groups to minimise mixing during the pandemic – and isolation is “causing disruption to many children’s education”.

On Tuesday, the government reported that school absence linked to Covid-19 was at its highest since March.

More than eight per cent of state school pupils in England – more than 640,000 – did not attend school on Thursday for a Covid-related reason, including being a confirmed case and being identified as a close contact.

Concerns have been raised in recent weeks about the interpretation of rules which has resulted in large groups of pupils being sent home for 10 days if another pupil in their bubble tests positive for Covid-19.

Mr Williamson told parliament that “key restrictions” would be dropped for schools from Step 4 of England’s “roadmap” out of lockdown, planned for 19 July.

He said: “Though keeping children in consistent groups was essential to control the spread of the virus when our population was less vaccinated, we recognise that the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children’s education.

“That is why we’ll be ending bubbles and transferring contact-tracing to the NHS test and trace system for early-years settings, schools and colleges.”

Geoff Barton, from the Association for School and College Leaders, said the scrapping of the bubbles system, “should remove some of the current barriers to offering children and young people a full timetable of lessons and return school life to something which seems much more normal”.

Mr Williamson also told MPs also said there would be “no restrictions on in-person teaching and learning in universities” unless students are told to self-isolate or are affected by local outbreaks.

But some universities have already confirmed they will be offering a mix of online and in-person teaching at the start of the next academic year.

Mr Williamson said: “I do not think it is acceptable that children should face greater restrictions over and above those of wider society, especially since they have given up so much to keep older generations safe during this pandemic.”

As well as the scrapping of bubbles and schools having to trace contacts, the education secretary said another change would be children only needing to isolate after a positive Covid test from 16 August.

Mr Barton said this would “remove the main reason for current Covid-related pupil absence”.

Government figures show about 561,000 children in England were self-isolating on Thursday due to possible contact with a Covid-19 case.

This was on top of 34,000 pupils out of school with a suspected Covid case and 28,000 with a confirmed infection.

Around 8.5 per cent of state school pupils did not attend for Covid-19-related reasons on 1 July – up from 5.1 per cent from the week before, which was the highest level since March before being overtaken by the latest figures.

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the latest figures “make for grim reading” and show the “huge impact” the highly contagious delta variant of Covid is having on schools.

He said: “Whilst the government might argue that scrapping bubbles and changing rules around self-isolation will reduce the number of pupils missing education, we should be equally worried about the significant rise we have seen in confirmed and suspected cases in a single week.”

Regarding the changes announced by Mr Williamson, Mr Brook said: “No school leader wants to have restrictions in place any longer than needed but there will be a sense of real concern amongst many that the worsening situation they see before their eyes is at odds with the government’s narrative of relaxation and return to normality.

“Schools have seen a near doubling of children contracting Covid-19, with 28,000 confirmed cases reported in the last week alone.

“School leaders and parents alike will want more reassurance than has been given so far that removal of restrictions are supported by scientific evidence, not driven by political convenience.”

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