Schools can take inset day next week to give staff a break from contact tracing

Schools will be allowed to take an inset day on the last Friday of term so staff have a “proper break” from identifying potential coronavirus cases ahead of Christmas, a minister has said.

Schools Standards Minister Nick Gibb told MPs that the Governments wants there to be a “clear six days” ahead of Christmas Eve so teachers and heads do not have to “engage with track and trace issues” throughout the festive break.

The minister’s comments came after a headteachers’ union said giving schools the flexibility to switch to remote learning for the final few days of term next week is an “obvious and straightforward solution”.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, had warned that schools could see a “steep drop” in pupil attendance next week as parents seek to prioritise family safety ahead of Christmas.

The Government in its Covid-19 Winter Plan last month had told schools in England not to change their Christmas holidays or close early this term.

But addressing the virtual Education Select Committee, Mr Gibb said: “We are about to announce that inset days can be used on Friday December 18, even if an inset day had not been originally scheduled for that day.”

He added: “We want there to be a clear six days so that, by the time we reach Christmas Eve, staff can have a proper break without having to engage in the track and trace issues.”

His pledge came as Department for Education (DfE) figures showed that between 7% and 8% of state school pupils – up to 650,000 children – did not attend school for Covid-19-related reasons on Thursday last week.

More than a quarter (28%) of schools reported having one or more pupils self-isolating after being told to do so due to potential contact with a Covid-19 case inside the school on December 3, down from 33%.

Nearly a fifth (19%) of secondary school pupils were absent from class on December 3, which is down from 22% the week before, the figures revealed.

Schools have been calling for more flexibility to end in-person teaching early to reduce the risk of pupils and staff having to self-isolate over Christmas, as well as reducing the burden of contact tracing during the holidays.

Speaking to MPs on Tuesday, Mr Gibb said the Government wants schools to stay open until the end of term as it is the “best place for young people for their education development” and for their mental health.

But he added: “We want to make sure that they (school staff) can have a proper break over Christmas. We know they’ve been under huge stress.

“I don’t think some of these senior leadership teams of schools have had a break at all since the pandemic began.”

Schools will be allowed to finish term on Thursday next week, but there may be one less scheduled inset day in 2021 if they decide to do this, Mr Gibb said.

The announcement came after academy chain Focus Trust, which runs 15 schools in the North West of England and West Yorkshire, was forced to reverse its plan to extend the Christmas break by an extra week to safeguard staff and families following a Government intervention last month.

Mr Whiteman said: “Some families and schools will still regard this as insufficient to meet their needs, and it may still force some hasty reorganisation of activities in the last week of term, which could have been avoided if the Government had been more proactive.”

He added: “A chaotic and disruptive end of term is still possible, especially in areas where there are large numbers of Covid cases and high levels of staff and pupil absence already.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We recognise the Government has made a small concession, but we had hoped it would allow more flexibility than has been granted.

“A single day is better than nothing, but it still means that school and college leaders will have to continue contact tracing in the event of positive cases through to Wednesday December 23.

“It also leaves them responsible, at very short notice, for informing families that they will need to self-isolate over the Christmas period.

“It is frustrating also that the Government has taken so long to agree this decision as there is so little time left for schools to make the necessary arrangements.”

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