It was a busy weekend in the Department for Education. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, led the daily coronavirus media briefing in Downing Street yesterday.
The presentation was very much in line with the government’s usual mantra – stay safe, protect the NHS, save lives – but the education secretary needed to set the record straight at the same time.
First, it is impossible to give a firm date as to when schools in England will reopen, Mr Williamson said. He mentioned no names, but this assertion followed a Sunday Times report suggesting that as part of a three-phase plan to ease lockdown measures, “senior ministers” could see schools reopening as early as 11 May.
"People are anxious to know when we're going to relax restrictions, when schools are likely to be fully back and open again”, Gavin Williamson said at yesterday’s briefing. “Of course, I want nothing more than to see schools back, get them back to normal, make sure the children are sat around, learning, and experiencing the joy of being at school. But I can't give you a date."
The education secretary emphasised the five tests identified by the government. These must be met, he said, before school gates will re-open, and parents and teachers would be given "proper notice" before students are re-admitted.
Five tests which must be met:
- Ensuring the NHS can cope
- Gaining evidence of a sustained and consistent fall in daily death rates
- Having reliable data which shows infection rates are manageable
- Being confident in the range of operational challenges. E.g. testing and the PPE
- Having confidence that adjustments will not increase the risk of a second peak
While school closures have caused turmoil and upset for many, teachers’ representatives are likely to welcome Mr Williamson’s announcement. Unions point out that social distancing in schools is particularly difficult to maintain, and it would not be sensible, say senior teachers, to push for an early return to the classroom.
Acknowledging this situation is far from ideal, the education secretary said that a series of 180 online lessons per week will be made available for pupils from reception through to Year 10.
“We said the BBC would be there for people through this crisis” said Alice Webb, BBC director, children’s and education, “and we meant it. It’s vital that every child is able to continue learning - and the lessons we’re putting on will make sure they have fun at the same time.”
The BBC’s line-up is made up of more than 200 talented individuals – some with more classroom experience than others. Manchester City footballer, Sergio Aguero, will encourage children to learn to count in Spanish, while Professor Brian Cox will tackle topics such as force and gravity. Referencing his own family tree, Eastenders actor Danny Dyer will speak directly to KS1 pupils as he introduces them to Henry VIII.
Alice Webb went on to say: "We’re proud that the BBC can bring together so many people to offer such a wide-ranging package of support to help children and parents right across the UK at such a challenging time.”
Gavin Williamson acknowledged that some pupils may need help to access online lessons and announced that Laptops will be provided for some disadvantaged children in England, including pupils taking GCSEs next year, children with a social worker, or those leaving care. He also said free 4G routers will be offered to help families access the resources.