School bubbles could be scrapped on July 19 as part of the next step of easing Covid-19 restrictions in England, according to the Education Secretary.
Gavin Williamson also told MPs he believes pupils “would not be facing” bubble arrangements in September.
He added he wants to end regular Covid-19 testing for schoolchildren “at the earliest and most realistic possible stage”, although he acknowledged this was a long-term aim, amid calls for schools to “move back to normal”.
Concerns have been raised in recent weeks and months about the interpretation of rules which have resulted in large groups of pupils being sent home for 10 days if another pupil in their bubble tests positive for Covid-19.
Labour warned data showed 375,000 children were out of school last week as a result of coronavirus.
Answering an urgent question on the impact of coronavirus on young people’s attendance in education, Mr Williamson told the Commons: “What I want to see is these restrictions including bubbles removed as quickly as possible along with wider restrictions in society.
“I do not think it is acceptable that children should face greater restrictions over and above those of wider society especially since they have given up so much to keep older generations safe over the last 18 months.
“Further steps will be taken to reduce the number of children who have to self-isolate including looking at the outcomes of a daily contact testing trial as we consider a new model for keeping children in schools and colleges.
“We constantly assess all available data and we expect to be able to confirm plans to lift restrictions and bubbles as part of Step 4.
“Once that decision has been made we will issue guidance immediately to schools.”
Step 4 of the road map is expected to take place on July 19.
Mr Williamson went on: “As we open wider society up, we will stick to the principle that children’s education and freedom comes first.”
He added: “I’m looking carefully every day at how we manage the balance between safeguarding children’s education and reducing the transmission of the virus, because I know that there is still too many children having their education disrupted, no matter how good remote education is that they are receiving.
“The new Health Secretary (Sajid Javid) and I have already discussed these matters and I’m working with him across my department as well as with scientists and public health experts to take the next steps.”
For Labour, shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “School leaders dread another last-minute announcement, they need time to put plans in place and their staff also desperately need a break over the summer.”
Robert Halfon, Conservative chairman of the Education Committee, said: “We are in danger of creating a generation of ghost children denied a proper chance to climb the education ladder of opportunity.
“So will (he) update the guidance, look to establish mobile testing units at school as soon as possible, even before September, so as to stop the need for children being sent home?”
Conservative former chief whip Mark Harper, who chairs the lockdown sceptic Covid Recovery Group, said: “Given we’ve now vaccinated all of those adults at risk of being seriously ill from Covid, is he really suggesting – given that Covid is going to be endemic – that for the rest of time we’re going to be testing our schoolchildren on a regular basis?
“I think we need to move back to normal.”
Mr Williamson replied: “We do want to see schools return to normality and we don’t want children to feel as if there’s an extra layer of things that they have to do that we as adults don’t have to do and I think that is very important.”
He said testing has been an “incredibly important tool” in helping schools return and the issue is “under review”, adding: “Much longer-term do I see testing as something that we expect children to continuously do always in the future? No I don’t, and I ideally want to move away from that at the earliest and most realistic possible stage.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said in a statement: “As we move into September, everyone will want to see disruption to education minimised.
“However, scrapping self-isolation for close contacts would be a very significant step to take, and the onus would be on the Government and public health advisors to explain how the alternative arrangements would work and, most importantly, how they will maintain the safety of all members of the school community.”