Thank you for contacting me about the phased reopening of schools.
Protecting the health and safety of the British public is, and must always be, the number one priority. That goal has guided the Government’s actions so far, and will continue to do so, both now and in the future.
I believe it is important that we get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so – being back with their teachers and their friends is so important for their education and their wellbeing. As you know, since 23rd March education and childcare settings have only been open to priority groups (vulnerable children and children of key workers) when the Department for Education directed schools to close. Earlier this week, Northumberland had 150 schools, educational settings and pre-school provisions open supporting over 1500 children. This included children from key worker families, vulnerable children and those who have an Education, Health and Care Plan. Now that we have made progress in reducing the transmission of coronavirus, the Government is beginning to slowly and cautiously lift some of the restrictions, and we hope to be able to return some pupils to school using the plans for a phased reopening of schools and educational settings that the Prime Minister has set out.
This will not happen any earlier than 1st June, and only if the five key tests set by Government justify the changes at the time, including that the rate of infection is decreasing and only if the scientific and medical advice at the time says it is safe to do so. Initially, the Government expect children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to return to school, in smaller class sizes. The ambition is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer, if feasible. For older pupils, the Government hopes to get Year 10 and 12 pupils who have key exams next year some face-to-face contact with their teachers, to supplement their remote education. It is unlikely that other secondary pupils will return to school before the summer.
The welfare of children and staff is at the heart of all decisions being taken on this issue. The Government is giving schools the detailed guidance and support they need to put appropriate safety measures in place to welcome children back, including advice on implementing social distancing and protective measures. This includes asking schools to carry out a risk assessment before opening to more children and young people - the assessment should directly address risks associated with coronavirus so that sensible measures can be put in place to minimise those risks for children, young people and staff. The safety measures include ensuring pupils do not attend if they, or a member of their household, has symptoms of coronavirus, as well as minimising contact and cleaning surfaces more frequently. Class sizes will also be reduced, and we will ensure pupils stay within these small, consistent groups, creating a protective bubble around them. Lunch times and breaks will be staggered, as well as drop offs and pick-ups.
I also appreciate that teachers and parents may have concerns about these plans. It is very welcome that the latest scientific advice indicates that more children will be able to return to school from 1st June, but it will be important to continue to limit overall numbers in school and introduce protective measures to prevent transmission. An overview of the latest scientific information can be viewed here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/885631/Overview_of_scientific_advice_and_information_on_coronavirus_COVID19.pdf
In addition, sector representatives have attended an expert panel to be briefed on the science underpinning government decisions. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) regularly publishes papers outlining the scientific advice provided to the government. Further batches will be published in due course.
All school staff and children, and their families, will be able to be tested for the virus, meaning that test and trace approach can be taken to any cases which occur.
This phased return is in line with what other European countries are doing to get their own schools, colleges and nurseries back. Taken together, these measures will create an inherently safer system, where the risk of transmission is substantially reduced – for children, their teachers and also their families. We have been in constant contact with headteachers, teachers’ unions and local authorities, and will carry on doing so, working on any issues they may have.
My colleague, Miriam Cates MP, who used to be a science teacher has produced the following video on this subject where she answers many of the questions you are worried about: www.facebook.com/votemiriamcates/videos/569879683909225/
For any further questions, please visit the following link answers the most frequently asked questions you may have: www.gov.uk/government/publications/closure-of-educational-settings-information-for-parents-and-carers/reopening-schools-and-other-educational-settings-from-1-june
As the Education Secretary has said, every one of us wants the very best for our children and we know how stressful this time has been for many families. The Government’s approach is based on the best scientific and medical advice, with children at the very heart of everything it does.
I would stress again that this is all conditional on the rate of transmission of the virus coming down, and the scientific advice saying it is safe to do so. Rest assure that guidance and support is being provided to schools to ensure that both children and teachers are kept safe.
Thank you again for taking the time to get in touch about this important issue.
I have raised concerns with Northumberland County Council in regards to our three tier systems and the years going back once schools reopened. I have since received the points below on this matter.
Since the closure of schools on 23rd March 2020, senior officers from Northumberland County Council have held weekly meetings with local representatives from the Department for Education (DfE). Each week the council officers reminded the DfE of the different needs of our first and middle schools and the key Year 4 and Year 8 transition points. At all times, the council was assured that our concerns about the three-tier system being forgotten would be reported back to the DfE in London.
To further pursue this, the local authority agreed with education officers in both Newcastle, which has the Gosforth three-tier system and North Tyneside, where Whitley Bay remains within a three-tier system, to collectively make our case to the DfE of the different needs of the schools in these areas when guidance on reopening schools was being prepared by the DfE.
The local authority also alerted its representative body, the Association for Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) to the three-tier issue and requested that, at its weekly meeting with the DfE in London, the ADCS remind the DfE that not all local authorities operate within a single primary-secondary model. At the 1st May meeting of the north-east ADCS Education Group, it was agreed that: ‘Awareness of the 3 tier system and transport issues for large counties to be raised on the ADCS education policy committee call (with the Secretary of State for Education) on Monday.’
Following the announcement of the proposal that schools reopen from 1st June, Northumberland County Council set up a series of meetings with its headteachers, including a First School Headteacher Group and a Middle School Headteacher Group. Issues raised by these headteachers continue to be reported back to the DfE.
Despite all the representations made by Northumberland, the initial DfE guidance on the reopening of schools on the 11th May did not reference first schools at all and made just one reference to middle schools: ‘From the week commencing 1 June 2020 at the earliest, we are asking nurseries and other early years settings to open to all children; primary schools to welcome back pupils to Nursery, Reception, year 1 and year 6 (including in middle schools)’.
A further discussion with the DfE regarding the three-tier system took place and it was agreed that: ‘In middle schools the focus (for reopening) would be on Year 4 and Year 8. The Regional Schools Commissioner agreed to take this back and look at how the guidance can best reflect this’. To date, despite numerous updates to the DfE school reopening guidance, there has been no change to the guidance for middle schools (above) and no mention of first schools.
Northumberland first and middle schools have continued to plan for reopening but, understandably, have been reluctant to stray too far from the DfE guidance. Northumberland County Council has reiterated from the time that reopening was announced that it would support all of its schools, including academies, to open in whatever way it felt appropriate to ensure the safety of its children and staff. Headteachers of first and middle schools have shared their concerns that the DfE’s reason for including Year 6 pupils within the first group of children to be welcomed back into school – ‘Year 6 children are finishing Key Stage 2 and are preparing for the transition to secondary school, and will benefit immensely from time with their friends and teachers to ensure they are ready’ – equally applies to children in Year 4 in a first school and Year 8 in a middle school and this has been reflected back to the DfE.
Northumberland County Council has reiterated to the DfE that it would support any of its first and middle schools that decided to invite either Year 4 or Year 8 pupils back into school. However, given the ongoing concerns being debated at a national level regarding the opening of schools generally, our first and middle schools do not yet feel that they have the necessary support from the DfE to be able to invite Year 4 and Year 8 children back to school and, by doing so, would open themselves up to potential challenge.
Northumberland County Council respects and supports the decisions being made by our first and middle schools and acknowledges the difficult position that they have been placed in by the DfE’s reluctance to engage with the three-tier system and to amend its guidance accordingly. Northumberland County Council, along with Newcastle City Council and North Tyneside Council, will continue to pursue this issue with the DfE and will continue to lobby for the return to school of Year 4 and Year 8 pupils at some point prior to the closure for the summer vacation.