United Kingdom

Parents' fury as Gavin Williamson says he can only 'hope' schools will reopen before Easter

Parents voiced their fury at the Education Secretary today as he suggested their children face an extra six weeks at home.

Gavin Williamson offered only 'hope' that schools will restart face-to-face lessons for millions of pupils before Easter. 

The Education Secretary said he wanted to get classrooms fully up and running in England at 'the earliest possible opportunity'.

But despite an initial aim for schools to restart after the February half-term, he today gave no guarantee they would be back before April. 

The Education Secretary also announced that parents and teachers will get a 'clear two-week notice period' of schools reopening. 

The comments, in a round of interviews, come amid fears of disrupted educations and millions of parents struggling to cope with home schooling since most children were barred from class during the third national lockdown. 

Parents took to social media to criticise the minister after his media round this morning from teachers who want schools reopened as soon as possible.

And Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Williamson merited an F grade for his performance as Education Secretary. 

Sir Keir told reporters that he 'certainly' hoped schools could open before Easter and 'the sooner the better', and Mr Williamson's promise to give schools two weeks' notice before reopening was 'good news, coming from an Education Secretary that normally gives them about 24 hours' notice'. 

Only the children of key workers have been able to go into schools since the third lockdown was imposed

Gavin Williamson today vowed parents will get two weeks' notice of schools reopening as he insisted children will get priority in easing lockdown

The Prime Minister's official spokesman today said: 'If we can open them up before Easter we obviously will do. But that is determined by the latest scientific evidence and data.' 

The Children's Commissioner for England said she is pleased that the Government has adopted a 'last to close, first to open' approach to schools, but said they need help with reopening.

'Schools don't just open by themselves magically when infection rates get to a certain level,' Anne Longfield told Sky News.  

'We need to make sure schools have all the measures in place to make sure they are safe to reopen and my hope is that certainly primary schools will be able to open after half-term when we believe the risks to children ... and adults are much lower.'

Ms Longfield added that she wants politicians to 'take poverty out of that too difficult box' and commit to plans to 'turn around the life chances for much of the population'.

Mr Williamson said he intended to give families and teachers , saying they would be the 'first' thing to be released from the draconian coronavirus curbs. 

And the under-fire Cabinet minister also played down fears over the risk within schools, stressing that they were 'safe'.  

'I would certainly hope that that would be certainly before Easter,' he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

'Any decision to open schools to all children is based on the best health advice and the best scientific advice.

'The reason that we were placed in the position to close schools to all but the children of critical workers and vulnerable children was down to the mounting pressure on the NHS.' 

Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:  'After the chaos and confusion that government incompetence over school opening and closure has created it is good that we now have an assurance from Gavin Williamson that school staff will be given two weeks' notice before reopening. 

'The last thing that parents and children need, now, is a stop-start approach. We all want schools to be open, but they must be opened when it is safe to do so, and when the conditions are right to keep schools open sustainably.' 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Williamson merited an F grade for his performance as Education Secretary.

The Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said she is pleased that the Government has adopted a 'last to close, first to open' approach to schools, but said they need help with reopening

Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education said: 'Schools are a refuge and a place of safety and security for many children. 

'They should have the same status as hospitals during the current pandemic. Schools must open as soon as possible and stay open across the Easter and summer holidays in order that some of the lost schooling can be clawed back.'

The government is due to review the plans at the start of February half-term - although it is far from clear that they will loosen the rules. 

Mr Williamson said one of the 'key criteria' for reopening schools would be whether the pressure on the NHS was lifting.

He brushed off calls by the opposition to resign following a series of policy U-turns.

'My real focus is making sure that children get back into school at the earliest possible opportunity,' he told Sky News.

'Schools were the last to close and schools will very much be the first to reopen.'

Mr Williamson said a further 1.3million electronic devices would be distributed to help with remote learning as schools stayed shut.

He told Times Radio that provision of laptops, tablets and routers were 'the ultimate safety net' for disadvantaged pupils.

'In terms of laptop and tablet provision, there's already an existing stock within the school system of 2.9million laptops and tablets,' he said.

Millions of parents have been struggling to cope with home schooling since most children were barred from class during the third national lockdown

'We're obviously topping that up, another 750,000 have already been dispatched over the last couple of weeks (and) another 50,000 this week.

'We're going to be taking that up to 1.3 million.'

Mr Williamson added that he had 'made it clear to schools' what was the 'absolute minimum' on remote education and had shared the details with parents.

'We're making sure there's that ultimate safety net because there are youngsters that may have a laptop but actually due to the area they live in, due to poor internet connection, aren't able to access the level of services or aren't in a situation where they are able to have that type of access.'

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