Lack of clarity over term start 'ludicrous', DfE told

Schools are being put in an 'impossible' position over how the new term will begin in January, MPs tell top DfE official
17th December 2020, 11:39am
John Roberts


Lack of clarity over term start 'ludicrous', DfE told
Coronavirus: Dfe Permanent Secretary Susan Acland-hood Said She Could Not Provide Clarity About Changes To The Start Of The New School Term

The Department for Education's top official has been told it is "ludicrous" that she could not confirm whether the school term will start as normal next year, when questioned by MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee this morning.

Susan Acland-Hood was asked about the news broken by Tes last night that the department was considering delaying the normal start of term in January for secondary schools.

The DfE's permanent secretary told the committee that the department had no plan to lengthen the Christmas holiday but that discussions were ongoing about how pupils will return, and that she could not provide clarity to MPs this morning.

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Committee chair Meg Hillier said her response was "ludicrous" and put schools in an impossible position.  

Ms Acland-Hood was asked if she expected schools to reopen on 4 or 5 January.

She said: "We are clear that we want to make sure there is as much education as possible provided to children in January and we don't have any plans to lengthen the Christmas holiday."

Coronavirus: Confusion over the start of the new school term

However, when pressed by Ms Hillier on whether this would mean that schools would be returning as normal in January, she said: "There are conversations going on about how exactly parents and pupils go back in January but I am afraid I can't speak to the committee about that this morning."

Ms Hillier replied: "Can you just be really clear? There is some discussion going on about how pupils go back. Is that a staggered return for pupils?

PAC chair Meg Hiller said it was ludicrous that the DfE could not confirm its plans for the start of new term.

Ms Acland-Hood then said she could not comment on leaks but was pressed further by the committee's chair.

Ms Hiller added: "We are now at the end of term. As the head of the department, can you tell us clearly, categorically what the situation is with schools so that school leaders, parents and pupils know what is happening on 4 and 5 January?"

Ms Acland-Hood said there were conversations going on but she could not give clarity now.

Ms Hiller replied: "I have to say that it is ludicrous that we are at end of term. The final day of term for any school in England is tomorrow and you are sitting here today and you can't tell us any more detail about what might happen on 4 or 5 January."

Ms Acland-Hood said: "I entirely accept that this is difficult."

But Ms Hillier responded: "It is not just difficult - it is impossible.

"I mean, if a school is breaking up tomorrow and that means pupils and teachers and other staff will not be in the school next week, how are they expected to plan for any changes in January?"

Ms Acland-Hood said: "I cannot communicate a decision that has just not yet been made or communicated by ministers."

She added: "If a change were to be made, I think we would need to communicate it today."

When asked whether a written statement on Thursday would announce possible changes for January, the DfE permanent secretary said: "I believe so."

She was speaking after education secretary Gavin Williamson threatened legal action against Greenwich council after it advised schools to switch to remote learning for most pupils on the final week of term.

Council leaders in Waltham Forest and Islington - who had also advised schools to move to online learning for the last few days of term - received letters from ministers urging them to retract their advice.

Speaking about the events in London this week, Ms Hillier said parents have had "very confusing messages" from government and local authorities.

She said: "So it's just a complete dog's breakfast out there. Parents don't know from day to day whether their child is going to be in school partly because of Covid, but then this layered on top is unacceptable, surely?"

A statement is due to made today on the DfE's plans for the start of term by education secretary Gavin Williamson, the committee was told.

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