Schools and universities shouldn’t be closing, says Education Secretary

The Education Secretary has said schools and universities “shouldn’t be closing” as he urged education leaders to follow medical and scientific advice during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Gavin Williamson said the Government was also working with exam boards, through regulator Ofqual, teaching and schools bodies to make sure there was “stability” in pupils’ education, whatever happens.

He added the Department for Education (DfE) would not be “penalising” schools if pupils are taken out of lessons by parents concerned about coronavirus.

Amid announcements of cancellations of face-to-face lectures and exams at some universities, he said: “I would urge any educational establishments, whether a school, a childcare or early years setting, whether it be a college or a university, to actually look at what the medical and scientific advice is.

Total coronavirus cases in the UK
(PA Graphics)

“And the medical and scientific advice is we shouldn’t be closing educational settings at the moment.”

Mr Williamson said he was also discussing a range of measures to “support children who may be outside of school” as the coronavirus outbreak continues.

The Secretary of State is meeting with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) on Monday.

Speaking on the first day of the ASCL conference in Birmingham on Friday, Mr Williamson thanked 1,000 delegates for their “incredible leadership”.

Afterwards, he said the DfE had already started discussing how schools go about delivering GCSE and A-level exams during the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Williamson added he was also looking at options to make sure disadvantaged children, currently in receipt of free school meals, continued to get unbroken support in the case of any school’s “temporary closure” or if advice on a full closure changed.

He added it was “a very rapidly changing situation” but that any changes to current Government policy would be “communicated early” with teachers.

Earlier, the ASCL described the announcement on Thursday to keep schools open as “absolutely the right decision”.

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton also said he felt schools would probably authorise pupil absences, where concerned parents had made a personal choice to keep their child off lessons, likening it to snow-day absences.

However, he added it was likely to be a “small scale” issue, as the Government’s decision, taken together with scientific advice, was “legitimising children staying in school”.

Asked about how pupils might be supported from home, through distance learning technology, Mr Williamson said: “At the moment we’re doing a lot of work.

“The first thing is making sure schools can continue to provide for vital education service within the school setting, which I think we all agree is the best place for the young people to be able to learn.

“We are looking at different ways that we can support children who may be outside of school, for a couple of weeks – making sure they continue to be in a position to be able to learn.

“That is something the department is looking at, together with other organisations.

“How we support children who are not in a position to attend school, and how schools are able to deliver it.

New cases of coronavirus per day
(PA Graphics)

“There are pupils that aren’t going to be able to attend school but it’s really important they continue their education in the best way possible.”

Regarding the possibility of GCSE and A-levels having to be done outside school, he said the “integrity of the exam system” was “vital”.

“But we recognise this is a very rapidly changing situation.

Mr Williamson added: “This is why we’re working with Ofqual, the exam boards, with schools, to ensure that if changes do need to be made they will be communicated early so that teachers and most importantly students are in the best possible place to be able to exceed and excel at these exams.”

He would not be drawn on exactly what issues would be discussed with school chiefs on Monday, but added: “It will be a very full agenda.”

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