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Education secretary's announcement: bringing children back to schools in January

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A message from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman to members

As I write, the secretary of state for education has just finished giving a statement in parliament. As a result of that announcement, we have learnt the government is proposing the following: 

  • The majority of secondary school pupils will no longer be returning next week. Instead, secondary schools will only be open to vulnerable children or the children of key workers from the week beginning 4 January 2021, with those in years 11 and 13 joining them at school from the week beginning 11 January 2021. As it currently stands, the plan is for all secondary pupils to return on the week beginning 18 January 2021

  • While most pupils in primary schools will return next week, in some ‘higher risk’ areas, primary schools will also remain closed to all other than vulnerable and key worker pupils.  You can find the government’s guidance outlining the full list of local authorities where this applies as well as further information for special schools, middle schools, school-based nurseries and alternative provision (AP) schools here.

Notwithstanding the bungled nature of the announcement, the decision to postpone pupils’ return to secondary schools is one we support. Given the latest data on secondary aged pupils, there was really no other option. We expect the government to continue to keep these plans under review in light of the emerging data. 

However, we do not believe the government is doing enough when it comes to primary schools, special schools, AP or early years settings. Given the developments of the last few weeks, we believe far more decisive action is required for all education settings. I expect that many of our members working in primary schools, special schools, AP and early years settings will once again feel deeply let down by the government following today’s announcement. In the current context, a ‘business as usual’ approach is not good enough.

We also saw the secretary of state refer once again to mass testing in our schools. For months, we have been calling for the rollout of mass testing in schools. But as I said in December, it requires proper support and adequate medical supervision. Schools do not have the capacity or expertise to run testing centres themselves. Given the mess the government has made of rolling out mass testing, I know many of us are beginning to question whether it might be better to focus on rolling out a vaccination programme in schools. 

To be clear, we have already called for all school staff to be prioritised for vaccination, and we will continue to do so. 

Over the last few weeks of term and the Christmas break, we have been working hard to persuade the government that decisive action that’s properly informed by the profession and communicated with reasonable notice has the potential to maintain the continuity and the quality of education. 

Today’s statement fails on every count. 

Now we have the detail of the government’s decision we will develop a more comprehensive response and advice for members. As soon as possible, we will write to you with advice regarding your personal options and potential collective efforts. 

I know this is a worrying time for members, which is compounded by the government’s ineptitude.

First published 30 December 2020