Secondary school students’ return to class in England will be staggered in the first week of January.
Exam students in Years 11 and 13 will go back as normal after the Christmas break but secondary students in Years 7 to 10 and those in Year 12 will start the term online rather than in class.
Further details emerged this morning after Tes revealed last night that the Department for Education was planning to delay the normal start of term for secondary school students.
It is hoped the staggered return to secondary schools in England will allow headteachers to roll-out mass testing in the new year.
Exclusive: DfE considers delaying start of term
Primary school pupils will go back to school as normal in January, alongside exam-year students, vulnerable pupils and key workers’ children.
Vocational exams scheduled for the week of 4 January will go ahead as planned.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “This targeted testing round will clamp down on the virus as students return from the Christmas break and help stop the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community.
“Building on the fantastic actions that schools and colleges have already taken to be as safe as possible, this additional testing will catch those who have the virus but are not showing symptoms to help schools and colleges stay in control of the virus throughout the spring term.
“The new programme of daily testing for close contacts of those with confirmed cases of the virus will also mean we can keep more pupils in school, the best place for their development and wellbeing.
"Over the rest of the academic year and in the run up to exams, it will remain a national priority to keep education open for all, while keeping schools as safe as possible.”
Coronavirus: A staggered return to school for secondary students
The Department for Education's top official was told it was "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, 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.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson is due to make a written ministerial statement to the Commons later on Thursday.
The DfE has strongly resisted attempts by schools, councils and academy trusts to move learning online in the last week of this term over Covid concerns.
Council leaders in Waltham Forest and Islington – who had also advised schools to move to online learning for the last few days of term amid rising coronavirus rates – were told to retract their advice.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “The start of the term won’t be delayed but what we are doing is asking secondary schools and colleges to operate a staggered return supported by full-time remote education during the first week of term, with in-person teaching in full starting on 11 January.”
Speaking about events in London this week, Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said parents had had “very confusing messages” from government and local authorities.
“So it’s just a complete dog’s breakfast out there," she said. "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?”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told reporters: “I think schools are going to be really frustrated this has come at the last moment.
“What we needed for schools was a plan that started last September and what we have had is one problem after another all through to the Christmas period.”
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said the government’s announcement on the last day of term demonstrated “ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action” in response to the rise in Covid-19 rates among pupils.
She added: “The presence of Year 11 and 13 pupils on the school site at the same time as the testing arrangements and procedures are being put in place will be extremely problematic.
“It is highly likely that these pupils will return from their Christmas holiday with higher levels of Covid-19 infection.
“Those who test positive will be required to isolate, which involves a huge amount of school staff taking the time to contact parents and to trace close contacts.”