Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has told MPs that primary schools in England will not be able to welcome all pupils back for a month before the summer holidays.
The minister said he would “work with the sector” as he confirmed the Government’s ambition to return all primary schoolchildren to the classroom for four weeks before the end of the summer term had been dropped.
Mr Williamson said the Government would like to see schools who “have the capacity” bring back more pupils where possible before the summer break.
It comes after school leaders, teachers and governors urged ministers to reconsider plans for a full return to primary school – as they said it would be impossible amid capacity issues, staff shortages and social distancing.
He told MPs in the House of Commons that the Government was still working towards bringing all children back to school by September, and he said exams will go ahead next year.
Children in nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 in England began returning to primary school last week after the Government eased lockdown measures.
But some schools said they did not have enough space on site to admit all pupils in the eligible year groups, while adhering to Government guidance to limit class sizes to 15 and encourage fewer interactions.
Figures released by the Department for Education (DfE) on Tuesday showed that just over half (52%) of primary schools in England had reopened to more children on Thursday last week.
But addressing MPs, Mr Williamson said the number of schools that have begun reopening their doors to more pupils has risen in recent days.
He said: “By the end of the week, more than half of primary schools were taking pupils from these year groups, and as of yesterday that had risen to over 70% of primaries that had responded.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said there would have been “significant practical barriers” to bringing all primary pupils back in the summer term if the goal had gone ahead.
He said: “School leaders are already working through the practical considerations of engaging all pupils and families as best they can, as the academic year draws to a close. This will require flexibility in order to balance the needs of all pupils with the continued constraints placed upon schools.
“With the end of term just six weeks away, Government now needs to provide urgent clarity on the anticipated constraints that schools may face in September, so that schools and parents can start to look ahead and plan with greater understanding of the possible disruption that may yet still follow.”
Addressing the Commons, Labour MP Meg Hillier accused Mr Williamson of being “asleep on the job” over school catch-up help, adding that he had “no clear plan” to distribute laptops to vulnerable pupils.
Mr Williamson defended the Government’s response on laptops, insisting the work is “on target”.
He said: “In terms of catch-up planning, this isn’t about something that is just over a few weeks, this has got to be an approach over a full year and more.
“That is what we’re putting in place, that is how we’re going to be supporting into the long-term.”
– The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that less than a fifth of deaths registered in the week ending May 29 in England and Wales involved coronavirus – the lowest proportion since the week lockdown was imposed.
– Care minister Helen Whately has become embroiled in a row after apparently saying that policies blamed for the high rate of Covid-19 deaths in care homes were based on scientific advice.
– London and Whipsnade Zoos have warned they face permanent closure if the Government does not reverse its decision to keep zoos shut as lockdown eases.
– Leading economists have warned ministers that they predict “really high unemployment for the foreseeable future” as a result of the pandemic.