The Education Secretary has “no plans whatsoever” to close schools again during the pandemic.
Nadhim Zahawi has pledged to keep schools open as he said testing pupils for Covid-19 and vaccinating eligible children will help keep them in class.
He suggested that directors of public health should opt for daily testing of school pupils, rather than self-isolation of contacts in the event of local outbreaks, to ensure face-to-face education continues.
His comments come as a Bill is set to be introduced in the Commons which calls for a “triple lock” of protections to ensure that any future school closures would have to be approved by Parliament.
Mr Zahawi told MPs that a review of extending the school day – which has been suggested by experts to help children recover learning lost during the pandemic – will be published before the end of the year.
Addressing the Commons Education Committee, he said: “Protecting face-to-face learning is my absolute priority. I have no plans whatsoever to close schools again.
“I know that the way we maintain face-to-face learning is through boosting the most vulnerable in our society… vaccinating the 12 to 15-year-olds as well, and of course the testing programme.”
The Education Secretary told MPs: “My commitment to you is that this Secretary of State will keep schools open because actually we know the damage by shutting schools.”
A Bill from Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Committee, aims to redefine schools as “essential infrastructure” to protect millions of pupils from future shutdowns.
Mr Zahawi told MPs on Wednesday that he would look at Mr Halfon’s Bill.
He added: “This is not a snowflake generation. They were really resilient, but actually keeping schools open has to be my priority.”
Mr Halfon warned that public health directors in different local authorities across the country have been “implementing their own rules” and sending children home amid a rise in Covid-19 cases.
When asked whether he would commit to providing stronger guidance to local authorities and school leaders, Mr Zahawi said continuing to vaccinate “at scale” and using testing would help keep face-to-face education open.
He added: “So where I’ve seen cases where MPs, colleagues have cited to me, directors of public health offering different advice in terms of self-isolation, I think it’s much better to have that student in school and use daily testing as a methodology if they need to.”
The latest Government figures show that the number of children out of school for Covid-19 related reasons in England rose to nearly a quarter of a million in the week before the October half-term.
During the hearing, Mr Zahawi was also questioned over whether the Department for Education (DfE) plans to lengthen the school day to help pupils catch up on lessons following school closures.
He said: “What the chair is asking about is ‘are we going to have a longer school day?’. No, we’re not on the whole. We’re saying we’ve got targeted funds to deliver.”
Last week, the Government announced it would provide an extra £1.8 billion to help children recover learning lost during the pandemic, bringing total catch-up funding so far to £4.9 billion.
Mr Zahawi said: “Let me deliver that £5 billion, continue to evaluate, come back to your committee and show you, I hope, how well we’ve done, because the evidence suggests that actually targeting and extending the day for 16 to 19-year-olds, which we’re doing, is the right thing.”
Addressing concerns about anti-vaccination protests outside schools, the Education Secretary told MPs it was “totally unacceptable” for any school leader to be “harassed or threatened” by anti-vaxxers.
Susan Acland-Hood, permanent secretary at the DfE, told the committee that the scale of anti-vaxx protests outside schools has been “quite small”.
She said: “I have a report that hits my desk every week on the number of incidents that we’ve seen and it’s typically a kind of handful, a single digit.”
Enjoy the convenience of having The Sunday Post delivered as a digital ePaper straight to your smartphone, tablet or computer.
Subscribe for only £5.49 a month and enjoy all the benefits of the printed paper as a digital replica.Subscribe