Coronavirus: Schools will be reopened in 'phased manner', says education secretary

Gavin Williamson says no date for lifting school closures but 'expected' to be in stages

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 29 April 2020 15:16 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

Schools across England will be reopened in a “phased manner” to ensure pupils and teachers are kept safe from coronavirus, the education secretary has confirmed.

Gavin Williamson said there was no date yet for lifting school closures, which have been in place since the UK entered lockdown last month. The only exception has been for children of key workers.

Amid growing pressure on the government to begin easing restrictions, Mr Williamson said he expected pupils to return to school in stages

“We want to make sure that schools are given proper notice but we do not have a date as to when schools are going to be opening,” Mr Williamson told the Education Select Committee.

When asked whether schools would open in stages, he said: “This is obviously something that we are giving a great deal of thought to and giving a lot of consideration.

“Just a couple of weeks ago, I commissioned Sage [the government’s scientific advisers] to set up a subgroup to look at the particular issues of opening schools, making sure that when schools are open it's done in the best possible way with the best scientific and medical advice.

“We expect Sage to be reporting back. The information we get from Sage along with Public Health England will be the key part of what informs us on how best we open schools.

“But I do expect schools to be opened in a phased manner.”

Mr Williamson said the ministers recognise that the idea of schools “all returning on day one with the full complement of pupils is not practical”.

He also ruled out running schools during the summer to help disadvantaged pupils, following a recent suggestion from children’s commissioner Anne Longfield to help disadvantaged children catch up.

The first batch of laptops to help poorer teenagers study at home will not arrive until the end of May, Mr Williamson also told the committee.

He said: “This week we’ll be writing to all local authorities and multi-academy trusts to give them a clear indication as to what the allocations that they’ll be receiving.

“We expect the first laptops to be arriving at the end of May, with the majority delivered through June.”

The government is facing pressure to set out plans on how the lockdown will begin to be eased, as the deadline for the three-weekly review of restrictions approaches.

Mr Williamson faced anger from Labour committee member Ian Mearns over the food voucher scheme operated by the private company Edenred for children who would normally get free school meals.

Mr Mearns said headteachers were forced to spend "an inordinate amount of time" outside working hours trying to ensure their pupils' claims were properly processed.

"I've been collecting horror stories about the Edenred system from headteachers an how inaccessible the system is to them and the fact that it is taking hours and hours," he told the education secretary. "Headteachers have told me that Edenred themselves have stated that the number of youngsters they were expecting to cater for was orginially 100 per cent underestimated by the Department for Education.

"Headteachers have told me that if they had to put on a bar graph their interaction with the Edenred system, it would go from at the low end 'deep frustration' and at the high end 'please kill me now' because it is taking so long.

"As a result of this, many youngsters who should be getting support are still struggling to get that support and we have a situation where school meal services provided by local authorities have jumped back into the void to provide hundreds of meals for for youngsters in a packed lunch format."

Mr Williamson responded: "I readily acknowledge that the level of demand for this has been exceptionally high and we have had some big challenges in terms of being able to provide schools with the level of service we would really want them to see.

"But both form the department's point of view and with Edenred, we have done everything we can do to support them to get these vouchers out as rapidly as possible. In the first few weeks we saw a slow turnaround in terms of people getting the vouchers out. That's decreased substantially. We still have some challenges in terms of schools being ale to access it rapidly and being able to place these orders. We are doing a lot of work with Edenred to speed that up."

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