College students will return to face-to-face education from 8 March at the same time as school pupils, the prime minister has said.
Speaking in the House of Commons this afternoon, Boris Johnson said schools had been the last to be closed and would be the first to open.
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He said all the evidence showed that classrooms were the best places for young people to be, and "based on our assessment of the current data against the four tests, I can tell the House that two weeks from today pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face teaching, supported by twice-weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils."
All schools and colleges will reopen fully from 8 March so all children and young people can be in the best place for them – the classroom.— Gavin Williamson (@GavinWilliamson) February 22, 2021
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Guidance published by the Department for Education this afternoon states that during the period of national lockdown, FE providers remained open to vulnerable students and the children of critical workers, and all other students would continue to learn remotely until 8 March.
Colleges reopening: 16-19 students to return for face-to-face teaching
"From 8 March we expect that every 16 to 19 student (or 19 to 25 with an EHCP [education, health and care plan]) will attend their FE provider in person, and will undertake the majority of their planned hours on site. Adult learners may also return on site."
The guidance adds that college leaders should "continue to judge the right balance between on-site and remote delivery for adult students in order to provide high-quality education and training".
Special post-16 institutions should continue to allow students to attend as per their usual timetable, it states, and colleges and special post-16 institutions will be able to test students on return, "initially on-site and then moving towards home testing". "For independent training providers and adult community learning providers, home testing will be available for staff and students from the end of March," it adds.
The government has confirmed that staff and students in secondary schools and colleges are being advised to wear face coverings in all areas, including classrooms, where social distancing cannot be maintained, as a temporary extra measure.
UCU: 'Irresponsible reopening'
Responding to the statement, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the prime minister was "pushing ahead with an irresponsible reopening of schools, colleges and universities at the same time" and warned against the use of lateral flow Covid tests.
She said: "Pushing students and staff back on-site increases the risk of more Covid outbreaks and threatens to undo the country’s hard work to get infection rates down.
"Lateral flow tests are completely unsuitable for testing on campuses. They are unreliable and incorrect negative results may give people a false sense of security, increasing the risk of outbreaks. The government must not use them to reopen colleges and universities.
"We expect employers to keep teaching online wherever possible to prevent campuses from seeding the virus. For many courses, this will mean no return to campus this academic year. UCU accepts that some university and college courses will need some in-person teaching but this needs to be very carefully managed to keep staff and students safe. Employers will need to agree new risk assessments with our health and safety representatives that take account of increased transmission rates of new variants, ventilation, PPE [personal protective equipment] and how vulnerable employees will be supported to stay off campus.
"Employers must work with us to protect staff and student safety. If our members feel their health and safety is being put at risk, then we will support them to protect themselves, including through balloting for industrial action where necessary."
Association of Colleges: 'Not enough to avert a lost generation'
David Hughes, chief executive at the Association of Colleges, said: "Disruption to learning due to lockdowns has been challenging for students’ education and wellbeing, so it’s good to hear the prime minister announce that many college students will be returning to face-to-face learning from next month. Colleges typically have thousands of students across varying ages, and they face a complex task now to prioritise who starts back first and how that will best meet the needs of students.
"We look forward to seeing the scientific evidence which sits behind the announcement. That will be important in reassuring staff and students of the low risks involved, with the right controls in place. The requirement for mass testing will be a logistical challenge, but colleges have used lockdown to prepare their sites and it will be a crucial element of keeping students and staff safe, alongside face coverings, social distancing, ventilation, phasing and rotas.
"Colleges can be trusted to make the best decisions for their students, staff and communities, as they have done since the start of the pandemic. Their focus will be on safely supporting every student to succeed at the end of their year, whether they want to progress into work, an apprenticeship, further learning in college or higher education. This roadmap gives a glimpse of the new normal, but we look forward to a long-term plan for overcoming lost learning, which will be a major concern for the whole education system for the next couple of years. The return of students to colleges is positive, but it is not enough to avert a lost generation.”
Why no 'phased return to learning'?
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said: “Sixth-form colleges are keen to get students back into the classroom as soon as possible, and as safely as possible. In our view, the most effective way to do this would have been through a phased return to learning that prioritised sixth-formers pursuing practical courses and reduced the number of students on-site in order to minimise the risk of transmission. The prime minister has announced a different approach today, with all students returning from 8 March.
"The key to a successful return from this date is flexibility. Opening to all students at the same time presents a range of very significant logistical challenges, not least the requirement to test all students and staff. We are pleased that the updated operational guidance that was published shortly after the prime minister’s speech retains the flexibility for colleges to decide the right balance of face-to-face and remote education as long as the majority of planned hours are on site. More broadly, college leaders must have the autonomy to reopen in a way that reflects their different local circumstances and student populations."
Association of Employment and Learning Providers chief executive Jane Hickie said: “The approach for adult learners seems entirely prudent. AELP’s understanding is that independent training providers will be able to order covid home testing kits soon and although the kits won’t arrive before the end of March, providers can make informed decisions about their delivery models whether that is remote delivery or the learner attending on site. It may be possible for instance to operate on site without needing to test by following the official guidance to protect learners including the wearing of masks.
“Our concern is however that all 16-19 learners with ITPs are expected by the government to undertake the majority of their planned hours on site from 8 March. For this to be mandated without twice weekly testing being available for ITPs and their learners constitutes a significant risk and we have raised the matter this afternoon with officials who have promised to consider it.”
'A reckless course of action'
Last week, nine organisations representing teachers and education leaders wrote to the government, stating that returning all learners on Monday 8 March "seems a reckless course of action" that could risk causing another spike in Covid infections.
They urged the prime minister to commit to the 8 March date only if the scientific evidence was clear that it was safe, and to go no further than a phased return to allow time to assess the impact before going on to the next phase.
The statement was signed by the Association of School and College Leaders, GMB, the NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, National Governance Association, Sixth Form Colleges Association, Unison and Unite.