All schools to close from tomorrow, Boris Johnson announces, putting summer exams in doubt

Closures announced on day when many primaries were ordered by ministers to reopen

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 04 January 2021 21:10 GMT
Boris Johnson announces all schools to close in England

All primary and secondary schools and colleges in England are to close for most pupils from tomorrow until February half-term, Boris Johnson has announced. 

In a televised statement from Downing Street, the prime minister acknowledged that the closures mean it will not be “possible or fair” for all exams to go ahead as planned this summer.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson is to consult with Ofqual on which exams can go ahead under what conditions, and how qualifications can be awarded.

The announcement came on the day that many primary schools reopened their doors on the orders of the government following the Christmas holidays, despite appeals from teaching unions and some councils for them to be allowed to remain closed.

Mr Johnson said: "I completely understand the inconvenience and distress this late change will cause millions of parents and pupils up and down the country.

"Parents whose children were in school today may reasonably ask why we did not take this decision sooner. 

"And the answer is simply that we've been doing everything in our power to keep the schools open, because we know how important each day in education is to children's life chances.

"And I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe for children. Children are very unlikely to be severely affected by even the new variant of Covid.

“The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.”

University students will not be able to return to university for the start of term.

Instead, they will be expected to follow their studies from their current address, with the exception of those whose physical attendance is necessary for their course, such as medical students.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We are relieved the Government has finally bowed to the inevitable and agreed to move schools and colleges to remote education in response to alarming Covid infection rates.”

But he added: “This decision clearly raises a question about GCSEs, A-levels and other exams which are due to take place in the summer.

“This new lockdown will be disruptive to learners who have already been hugely disrupted. Schools and colleges are very worried about how exams can be made fair in these circumstances.

“We are keen to work with the Government and exam regulator Ofqual to make this process as fair as it can possibly be.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the BBC: "A lot of staff and teachers have done all they can to get some schools back open today … and nobody wants to see schools, closing.

"But I'm afraid that's inevitable given the serious situation that we find ourselves in. I understand the anger and frustration. It is inevitable.

“What we now need, I think, is proper support for working parents, who will be really concerned about what to do in the coming days and weeks, proper support for children at home, because that package needs to be in place, and we need to already start working on how we can reopen again.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said Mr Johnson had “ducked the difficult decisions, failed to listen to experts and acted too late”.

"Just yesterday morning Johnson was telling parents that schools were safe and children should definitely go,” said Davey. "Today he is telling us that they must all move to remote learning but without any proper future plan.

“The prime minister’s failure to act earlier means we are seeing record numbers of new infections, a rising death rate, hospitals overwhelmed and NHS and care staff exhausted."

Prof Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, warned that significant care and additional resources would be needed to avoid unfair disadvantage to children from poor backgrounds, leading to reduced chances and lower earnings later in life.

“We must ensure that any assessment system that replaces exams is fair to all pupils particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds," he said. "The evidence of learning losses suffered during the pandemic so far suggests that further school closures in early 2021 are also likely to exacerbate educational inequalities.

“The government will need to target significant extra resources to help the most disadvantaged pupils. Unless action is taken, reduced hours of learning, persistent absence from school and weakening economic conditions at home equate to bleak prospects for the young."

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