Headteachers in England have expressed relief at the government’s decision to “bow to the inevitable” and close schools. But they described ministers’ decision-making as shambolic and demanded urgent clarification on what will replace next summer’s exams, which will no longer go ahead as planned.
School leaders and teaching unions, who were pressing for a delayed reopening of schools after Christmas, said the government’s response had been “last-minute and chaotic” and called for greater cooperation with the teaching profession to ensure safe reopening as soon as possible.
Concerns will now focus on efforts to avoid a repeat of the exams fiasco last summer and the quality of remote education which has been hampered by the digital divide among students. Many disadvantaged pupils have been forced to cope without necessary technology despite government promises of a million laptops.
As with previous closures, children of key workers and pupils from vulnerable backgrounds will continue to attend but all other students will shift to remote and online learning from Tuesday.
Welcoming the announcement, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We are relieved the government has finally bowed to the inevitable and agreed to move schools and colleges to remote education in response to alarming Covid infection rates.
“[But] it is very frustrating that it issued legal threats to schools at the end of last term to prevent them moving to remote education, and then made a series of chaotic announcements about the start of this term. Everybody understands this is a fast-moving situation, but ministers have to stop boxing themselves into a corner by being so dogmatic about their plans even as those plans are obviously unravelling.”
Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the Commons education committee , called for renewed efforts to improve remote learning and for priority vaccinations for school workers. “I feel for the teachers and support staff who have been working since just before Christmas trying to sort out a testing regime and plan for a return to school,” he said.
It marks yet another U-turn for Boris Johnson, who hours earlier was urging parents to send children back to primary school this week while secondary schools have been working to get testing regimes in place.The move in Westminster came hours after Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said schools would remain closed until next month as part of a national lockdown.
Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams also announced that all schools and colleges would move to online learning until 18 January. She said: “We had initially given schools flexibility in the first two weeks of term to decide when to reopen based on local circumstances. But it is now clear that a national approach of online learning for the first fortnight of term is the best way forward.”
In Northern Ireland, ministers were meeting to discuss their response to the growing crisis.
Headteachers in England said government policies had resulted in “complete chaos” on the first day of term, with parents confused and teachers in fear of their health and safety.
Staff who could have been preparing for remote learning have instead focused on trying to get primary schools open for the start of term, in line with government demands. In secondaries, school leaders worked flat out over Christmas on plans for mass Covid testing, with millions of tests delivered by the army on Monday.
Although the majority of primary schools managed to open, many remained shut due to staff shortages as thousands of teachers staged a walkout because of health and safety concerns. Despite the government narrative of keeping schools open, in the end about half the entire pupil population in England remained at home on Monday, as secondary schools stayed closed to the majority of pupils.
Halfon called on the government to work with schools and Ofsted to “make sure that … the disadvantaged do not suffer the most from the loss of learning”. He also raised concerns about the impact on mental health of further lockdowns, adding: “There needs to be an urgent decision on exams. My view is that ideally exams would take place in at least core subjects, but if pupils from exam years are missing school further, then we should move to centre-assessed grades.”
Meanwhile, many in the early years sector in England were furious to discover that they are to remain open while schools and colleges close. Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “Many early years practitioners were already incredibly worried about continuing to work during this period.
“It is unacceptable that yet another government announcement has been made without reference to any scientific evidence explaining how those working in early years are expected to be able to keep themselves and their loved ones safe at a time when those in schools are being told that it is simply too dangerous to go to work.”