No date set for schools re-opening, Education Secretary confirms

No date has been set for the re-opening of schools, the Education Secretary has said, as he apologised to children for the interruption to their studies.

Gavin Williamson said five tests must be met before schools can re-open, adding there are no plans to open them over the summer.

The minister said the coronavirus pandemic is at a stage where there are “an awful lot of questions” which people would love to have answers to.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing, Mr Williamson said: “People are anxious to know when we’re going to relax restrictions, when schools are likely to be fully back and open again.

“Of course, I want nothing more than to see schools back, get them back to normal, make sure the children are sat around, learning, and experiencing the joy of being at school.

“But I can’t give you a date. Because before we do, we need to meet five tests.”

Mr Williamson said these tests include protecting the NHS’s ability to cope, seeing the daily death rates come down, and having reliable data that shows the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels.

He said there has to be confidence that testing capacity and PPE is being managed “with supply able to meet, not just today’s demand, but future demand”.

Mr Williamson said there also must be confidence that any changes do not risk a second peak of infections.

In a direct address to the nation’s schoolchildren, Mr Williamson said: “To any young people watching, I wanted to say to you how sorry I am that you’ve had your education disrupted in this way.

“I know how hard it must be, and I’d like to thank you for making the adjustments that you’ve had to make.

“I know you will be missing your friends, your teachers, your lessons.

Downing Street press conference
Downing Street press conference

“I want you to know that you are such an important part of this fight too, and I cannot thank you enough for all that you are doing.”

Mr Williamson was asked about schools opening over the summer and whether he thinks social distancing is feasible in them, and replied: “I think we recognise the challenges that anyone who’s a parent of trying to instil social distancing in small children, and we have to understand really that sort of broad context.”

He added: “There are currently no plans to have schools open over the summer period and we haven’t been working on plans to have them open over the summer period.”

Mr Williamson said the UK is looking closely at how other countries are re-opening their schooling systems.

Meanwhile, children from disadvantaged backgrounds across England will receive free laptops and tablets to help them learn from home during the lockdown.

The move is part of a push to make remote education accessible for pupils while schools are closed.

A new online academy is also being launched to offer pupils 180 online lessons a week.

Mr Williamson said 4G routers will be provided to ensure disadvantaged secondary school pupils and care leavers can access the internet where those families do not already have mobile or broadband internet.

The Oak National Academy will launch on Monday, having been created by 40 teachers from some of the leading schools in England in less than a fortnight.

Its 180 video lessons per week will cover a broad range of subjects including maths, arts and languages for pupils ranging in age from reception to Year 10.

Electronic devices will be ordered for pupils “in the most vital stages of their education for those who receive support from a social worker and care leavers”, the Department for Education said.

Childline’s been delivering counselling sessions to children & young people who've experienced abuse or neglect in lockdown & we’re increasingly worried. Without Childline these children might suffer alone. Please help us continue to be here for children:

— NSPCC (@NSPCC) April 17, 2020

Young people will be eligible for the devices if they do not already have one and either have a social worker or are care leavers, or are disadvantaged children in year 10, ahead of GCSEs next year.

The Department for Education said schools and colleges will be able to keep the laptops and tablets once they have reopened.

The Government said it would also make funding of £1.6 million available immediately for the NSPCC to expand and promote its national helpline for adults.

Becca Lyon, Save the Children’s head of child poverty, said: “Additional online support for all children to continue their learning will help many, but those without access to the internet will still be missing out. Extending router availability to the families of younger children in poverty will ensure children continue to learn at a critical point in their development.”