Independent preparatory schools are expected to bring back additional year groups from next week following what they see as a "lack of clarity" in the education secretary's announcement on Wednesday.
Christopher King, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (Iaps), told Tes that while, initially, he had asked members to follow government advice over which year groups would return, Gavin Williamson's "vagueness" this week meant schools were likely to take an independent decision to bring priority year groups back.
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"Members have reacted with a combination of disappointment and bemusement really, because there doesn’t seem to be a coherent and obvious strategy," Mr King said.
"The government has clearly been taking decisions for the state sector, and we understand that, the overwhelming majority of pupils are educated in state schools. But yesterday’s [Wednesday's] decision just left things hanging in mid-air."
Mr King said that he had advised the membership to draw up plans to reopen to more pupils in the event that the government announced other years would come back, as "you can't switch it on like a tap".
But he said that without further guidance he thought prep schools would reopen to priority transition years such as Year 5 and Year 8, where pupils would be moving on from schools that educate pupils up to age 11 and 13, as well as Year 2 in early years settings.
"If we have to wait until next week for further guidance, that will really be taking us towards the end of June before the pupils could come back and the schools would be breaking up after that. So for anything meaningful to happen it needs to happen very soon," he said.
"We’re looking for clarity, some clear strategy and some leadership, and we’re not seeing any of that at the moment. I think the membership very widely is ready to stand behind its own risk assessments and to do what’s best for its pupils."
He added that he had originally asked members to follow government guidance but that a lack of leadership from government would lead the sector to change tack.
"As chief executive of Iaps, I took a view, which the membership has followed, that we should follow the government’s advice with regard to the year groups that would come back to start with.
"But now with the minister’s vagueness yesterday, people wanted to see if a coherent strategy was going to come through to build on and that statement took it all away. In the absence of that, they are going to act independently."
He pointed out that decisions to open up to more pupils would not be taken "recklessly" and that schools would carry out "robust risk assessments". Prep school classes tend to be smaller, and schools were likely to operate in bubbles of fifteen to ensure social distancing.
"It varies so much from school to school, but many of our schools are blessed with extensive facilities – we have got the space to be able to bring back larger numbers of pupils," he said. He added that schools would aim to bring pupils back for full-time education rather than using a rota system.
Most schools would bring back one priority year, but smaller schools might manage to bring back two, he said – for example, it might be possible for a smaller school to bring back Years 2 and 5.
"Unless the government were to say 'you must not do it', then I would expect some schools to return next week," he said.