Williamson insists he has control over schools reopening despite Covid-19 cases

Gavin Williamson has claimed the Government is “very much” in control over the return of schools, despite several Covid-19 cases being recorded.

The Education Secretary launched the defence of the reopening as he also suggested longer school days and Saturday classes could be used to help pupils catch up with teaching they missed during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Speaking in the Commons, Labour MP Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) said: “Just in the last week, a few days ago at the start of term, we’ve had 46 cases in schools across the UK.

“In Scotland, there were 86 cases, a total of 158 schools already have cases.

“In a Suffolk school, five teachers, I think it’s in (Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s) own constituency, five teachers and the school has had to close.

“Is (Mr Williamson) confident the Government really has this under control?”

Schools go back in England

Mr Williamson responded: “Very much so and if I draw (Mr Western’s) attention to the joint letter by the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, what they were pointing out is that children are best served by being in school.”

He also told MPs that schools will only ever be closed as an “absolute last resort”.

Mr Williamson said: “On July 2, we outlined our expectations and what is required for schools in terms of delivery of continuity of education.

“That’s why we’ve made an investment of a further 150,000 laptops that will be provided for those communities that are in a position where they’re not going to be able to be providing face-to-face teaching within schools.

“But to be absolutely clear – schools will only ever be closed as an absolute last resort because we all understand in this House, on both sides of this House, how important it is for children to be benefiting from being in school with their teachers and learning in the school environment.”

Coronavirus – Tue May 5, 2020

On catch-up support, Mr Williamson said schools will assess the individual needs of their children – adding there is “clear guidance” about what works in the classroom.

He told MPs: “That might mean extending the school day for some, that might mean Saturday classes for others.

“There are so many different interventions that can really deliver significant results in terms of helping youngsters catch up on the learning that they have lost.”

Meanwhile, education minister Gillian Keegan said the department is supporting 40 colleges in financial difficulty.

She told the Commons: “We are working with 40 but so far only five have needed financial assistance, but we will keep this under review.”

For Labour, shadow education minister Emma Hardy raised concerns over the safe reopening of universities.

She said: “I share Sage’s serious concerns that the annual mass migration of millions of students to any university means that ‘significant outbreaks of Covid 19 are highly likely’.

“Universities have worked hard to make campuses Covid secure, but the DfE (Department for Education) must take responsibility and ownership of this crisis and recognise that most students live, work and socialise outside of the campuses.

“When will universities and communities receive the updated guidance on safe reopening promised in a DfE press release late on Friday night? What additional testing capacity has been deployed to keep staff, students and communities safe, and will the minister make a statement this week on the safe reopening of universities?”

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “Sage did indeed publish their updated guidance on Friday and the Government will issue updated guidance this week which supplements our original guidance months ago.

“The safety and wellbeing of university staff and students is always our priority. As Sage pointed out, there is also evidence that physical and mental health will be impacted if universities do not open.

“Universities have worked hard to ensure that they’re well prepared for Covid and have prioritised the safety and wellbeing, including introducing numerous social distancing and Covid secure measures.”

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