Following the continued increase in case rates the Government has taken the decision to close primary schools, secondary schools and colleges across England except for children of critical workers and the most vulnerable. This will be effective from the beginning of January until at least the 15th February.
With the new strain of the virus more transmissible than the previous, and with cases and hospital admissions rising beyond control, we cannot afford a further rise in cases. This is something that we regret having to do, as we know that schools are the best place for children to be and young people are very unlikely to be severely affected by the virus – however, schools may act as a vector allowing the virus to spread.
I hope that I can take this opportunity to explain why the Government has been so reluctant to order a blanket closure of schools.
Young people have already missed many months of education and we know from the first lockdown that the longer children are kept away from the classroom, the greater the harm to their education, to their life opportunities and indeed their mental, physical and social wellbeing. For disadvantaged children, this harm is sadly even greater.
The Government believes that the harm of not going to school for these students, is significantly more damaging than the risks posed by attending school. Many students do not have access to the technology needed to work from home or may have unstable home lives. A significant number of students feel less supported while working from home, and the increase in stress and anxiety that young people faced when schools were last closed was worrying.
Instead, we implemented a system that allowed for local public health teams to work with schools, identifying possible contacts and only asking certain individual, year groups, or schools to close based on the specific circumstances and risk. This way, we could avoid the blanket closure of schools, including schools which had not had confirmed cases, to ensure the best education and support for as many children as possible. We also began rolling out mass asymptomatic testing in the community and schools before Christmas, in the hope that this would support schools in being able to remain open.
Unfortunately, now we cannot continue with this strategy. From now, all schools must move to remote education for those children who aren’t vulnerable or children of key workers. I know that this news will come as a disappointment to many families but as a relief to others.
More devices will be distributed to schools and students in need to support remote learning and extra support will be provided to ensure that pupils entitled to free school meals will continue to receive them while schools are closed.
The Government also recognises that because of this disruption, it will not be possible of fair for exams to go ahead this summer as normal. I understand that the Education Secretary is now working with Ofqual to put in place alternative arrangements to assess students.
In the meantime, people must continue to follow the guidance that the Government has set out at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-lockdown-stay-at-home
Young people should also follow the guidance and should not be socialising in person as this risks undermining the effort that everyone is making to reduce the spread on the virus under this lockdown.