Gove hopes staggered school return will go ahead as planned

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has said the Government hopes the staggered reopening of schools in England will go ahead in January as planned.

Officials from Downing Street and the Department for Education are due to discuss the issue on Monday amid concerns over the spread of a new strain of coronavirus.

Earlier this month, the Government said exam-year students would go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays, but the majority of secondary school pupils would start the term online to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Mr Gove said the Government was confident primary school pupils and Year 11 and Year 13 pupils in England would be able to return in the first week of January, with the rest going back later in the month.

"It is our intention to make sure we can get children back to school as early as possible," he said.

"We are talking to teachers and headteachers in order to make sure we can deliver effectively. But we all know that there are trade-offs.

"As a country we have decided – and I think this is the right thing to do – that we prioritise children returning to school.

"But we have a new strain and it is also the case that we have also had, albeit in a very limited way, Christmas mixing, so we do have to remain vigilant.

"We are confident that we will be able to get schools back in good order. Our plan and our timetable is there, and we are working with teachers to deliver it."

School pupils wearing face masks in class
School pupils wearing face masks in class

He told Sky News: "We always keep things under review but teachers and headteachers have been working incredibly hard over the Christmas period since schools broke up in order to prepare for a new testing regime – community testing – in order to make sure that children and all of us are safer."

Scientists have suggested that the mutated coronavirus strain could more easily infect children.

The National Education Union has previously said the Government should allow schools to move classes online for most pupils for a fortnight in January to allow Covid-19 cases to fall.

Labour's shadow education secretary Kate Green said: "Labour has been clear that keeping pupils learning should be a national priority, but a litany of Government failures, from a lack of funding for safety measures through to the delayed and chaotic announcement of mass testing, is putting young people's education at risk.

"It is time for the Prime Minister to get a grip on the situation and show some leadership.

"The country needs to hear from him today, alongside the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, about the evidence on the spread of the virus, how he plans to minimise disruption to education and a clear strategy for schools and colleges that commands the support of parents, pupils and staff."