All primary and secondary schools have closed, after England moved into a third national lockdown.
The Prime Minister stated on Jan 4 that schools will need to offer remote learning until at least mid-February and GCSE and A-level exams face cancellation for a second year.
Gavin Williamson, however, has indicated that exams may go ahead in a reduced capacity. The Education Secretary has said he would “like to explore the possibility of providing externally set tasks or papers”, in a letter to the chief exam regulator on Jan 13.
Only vulnerable children and children of key workers are currently allowed to attend schools for face-to-face learning, and early years settings such as nurseries will remain accessible.
Boris Johnson said the new measures were necessary: “because we have to do everything we possibly can to stop the spread of the disease”.
However, Mr Johnson remains “very cautious” about the timetable, with restrictions being lifted as a “gradual unravelling”.
Those entitled to free school meals will continue to receive them during closures, and more devices will be distributed to help remote learning, according to Mr Johnson.
The Government had insisted schools would remain open only a day before the new measures were announced, reassuring parents it was “safe” to send their children back for the start of term on January 4.
But the move prompted backlash from four national teaching unions, who called for the delay seen across London to apply to all schools in England amid concerns the new strain of Covid-19 poses a threat to teachers.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England has called for teachers to be vaccinated “as a priority”.
The Telegraph reported on January 9 that education experts warned that Britain needed to massively expand its army of tutors to stave off the long-term economic damage of Covid-19 from lost learning.
What are the rules for children of key workers and vulnerable children?
The Department for Education (DfE) said children with at least one parent or carer who was a critical worker could attend class – even if parents were working from home.
It came after concerns were raised about the risks of transmission of Covid-19 amid reports that more than half of pupils were onsite in some primary schools.
Matt Hancock said on Jan 11 that Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, will be sending out 500,000 laptops to vulnerable children to ensure they can access remote lessons.
The Prime Minister told MP’s that 560,000 laptops were distributed in 2020, but this still falls short of the 1.5m pupils that Ofcom estimates are without digital devices in their homes, on which they can learn.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Schools are open for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. We expect schools to work with families to ensure all critical worker children are given access to a place if this is required.
“If critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time then they should do so, but otherwise this provision is in place to enable them to provide vital services.
The DfE also said that schools were expected to “strongly encourage” vulnerable children to attend class.
Vulnerable children could include “pupils who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home” due to a lack of devices or a quiet space to study, according to the advice.
But Government guidance says parents who choose to keep children out of class will not be penalised.
What do Tiers mean for schools?
The new lockdown measures mean the entire country will be subject to the same tougher measures, including the closure of all schools. This means the tier system is not currently in place.
Every school had been instructed to draw up plans to ensure children continue to receive an education even if they have to stay at home.
Mr Johnson said on the announcement of closing schools: “I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe to children.
“The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.”
When will secondary schools reopen?
All schools will remain closed until mid-February, with the possibility that these measures could be extended further.
This means most secondary school pupils will stay at home until at least the February half-term.
Are there any changes to exams?
Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has indicated that GCSE, A-Level and AS exams may take place after all.
Mr Williamson addressed this possibility in a letter to the chief exam regulator on Jan 13. This contradicts his announcement on on January 6 that exams would not take place this summer.
Mr Williamson explained that the replacement would be a “form of teacher-assessed grades, with training and support provided to ensure these are awarded fairly and consistently across the country”.
However, the Education Secretary stated on Jan 13 that he would “like to explore the possibility of providing externally set tasks or papers”.
While teachers’ predicted grades will still be used, the exams may be necessary so that teachers can “draw on this resource to support their assessments of students”, he said.
Previously, Mr Williamson had told the Commons that, while exams are the fairest way of testing a student’s knowledge, the Covid pandemic means it is “not possible to have exams this year” and ministers will “put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms”.
The Department for Education and Ofqual will launch a joint consultation on the plans later this week, and this will run for a fortnight.
How will testing in schools work?
The Government had previously set out a plan for every secondary school to test as many pupils and staff as possible when they reopened.
It is not yet clear if schools will still be required to mass test pupils after the latest school closures have ended.
The plans stated that 40,000 volunteers will have to be recruited by secondary schools to mass test their pupils, according to Government documents.