English schools in areas worst hit by Covid to close for longer

Education secretary says schools in areas with highest Covid rates will not reopen for much of January

Schools in parts of England heavily affected by Covid-19 are to remain closed to most children for the first weeks of January – including primary schools in many parts of London and the south-east – the education secretary has announced.

University students will also face further delays returning to campus, with Gavin Williamson confirming that only those with clinical or lab-based classes, or in teacher training, will be able to return initially.

In a statement to parliament, Williamson said that while primary schools in most parts of the country could reopen as normal from 4 January, those in parts of London, Essex, Kent and nearby local authorities would be closed for two weeks to all but vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers.

“I would like to emphasise that this is being used only as a last resort – this is not all tier 4 areas – and that the overwhelming majority of primary schools will open as planned on Monday,” Williamson told MPs.


Among the local authorities affected in London are Kensington and Chelsea, Barnet and Croydon, while those outside the capital include Basildon in Essex and Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks in Kent, as well as Milton Keynes, Hastings and Watford.

The initial list of affected local authorities omitted the London borough of Redbridge, which the Department for Education (DfE) later added, blaming the Department of Health for the error.

Williamson confirmed that secondary schools and colleges across England would be closed to almost all pupils for the first week of term, in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19 and allow schools to prepare for mass testing. Only those with exams in summer will receive remote tuition that week, mainly years 11 and 13, with other year groups having an extended holiday.

Secondary schools throughout England will remain closed to most pupils the following week, beginning 11 January, with only the exam years and other eligible pupils allowed inside schools and colleges while other years are taught remotely.

From 18 January all secondary year groups are expected to be back being taught in person, although Williamson said the DfE would review the areas most affected by 18 January, meaning that secondaries and primaries could remain closed to most pupils for an extended period.

Schools table

School leaders welcomed the delay and supported the greater flexibility to prepare for the mass testing of students and staff. But many expressed anger at the government’s slow decision-making. Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “This is another last-minute mess, which could so easily have been avoided if the government had listened to school leaders before the holidays.

“Instead, back then, schools that wanted to shift to remote learning were threatened with legal action. Now we have a situation where the government is instructing schools to reduce the amount of teaching time available.

“If we’d had the freedom to take action before the holidays, we might have been in a position to have more schools open for more pupils. School leaders will be baffled, frustrated and justifiably angry tonight.”

Williamson said students with BTec external assessments or other exams in January would be expected to attend in person, as headteachers said the timetable would mean further lost learning for those sitting exams later in the year.

Jules White, the headteacher of Tanbridge House secondary school in West Sussex, said: “It seems inevitable that exams will be abandoned as they cannot be conducted fairly. Hard-working students deserve clarity and the DfE must face up to the harsh reality that exams such as GCSEs, BTecs and A-levels cannot go ahead. They must set out a credible grading process to avoid the shambolic scenes of last summer.”

Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said Williamson’s plans for school-wide testing had failed.


“If the government had acted quicker, followed the science, and given schools the support that they needed throughout this pandemic, we wouldn’t be facing a new year with this new wave of infections and huge disruption to the lives of pupils, their families and staff across our education system,” Green said.

“The government have lost control of the virus, and it’s children and young people across the country who are paying the price.”

The government’s decision came as surveys showed popular support for school closures among parents and other adults. A survey of nearly 7,000 adults in England carried out by YouGov this week found that 68% supported keeping schools closed for a further two weeks after the Christmas break, while just 20% opposed it.

YouGov found support for closures was highest among those in London and the south, while two-thirds of Conservative voters also backed the move.

A survey of parents of school-age children conducted by the Parent Ping app found 54% agreed that the start of term should be delayed at all schools across the country, while only 5% disagreed with any delay.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister for England, is to send an updated letter to vice-chancellors outlining the government’s plan to review return dates for the majority of students, with some unlikely to return until February.

The government wants students to show two recent negative Covid tests before being able to use campus facilities or participate in in-person teaching, or alternatively to self-isolate for 10 days.

Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “Keeping learning online until Easter would help lower rates of transmission and ensure a consistent learning experience, but the government continues to be fixated on forcing students and staff into lecture theatres and classrooms.”


Richard Adams Education editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
English schools told to delay seeking help with small Covid outbreaks
DfE advises measures should be taken only once a threshold of infections has been reached

Richard Adams Education editor

19, Aug, 2021 @4:48 PM

Article image
A-levels: why has Ofqual suspended its criteria to appeal grades?
DfE did not consult exam regulator on guidance and students must now wait until Ofqual issues revised policy

Richard Adams

16, Aug, 2020 @4:22 PM

Article image
Gavin Williamson draws teachers' ire with impartiality warning
Education secretary accused of failing to focus on key issues such as coronavirus impact

Sally Weale Education correspondent

05, Oct, 2020 @2:43 PM

Article image
Treasury expected to balk at further education loan plans
Gavin Williamson hails plans for ‘lifelong loan entitlement’ but Treasury is hostile to expanding system

Richard Adams and Sally Weale

21, Jan, 2021 @5:17 PM

Article image
Pressure mounts on Williamson after BTec exams reversal
Education secretary forced into climbdown following calls from college leaders to halt vocational exams

Sally Weale, Helen Pidd and Richard Adams

05, Jan, 2021 @8:15 PM

Article image
Ministers may move university applications to after A-level results
Exclusive: DfE believes current predicted grades method disadvantages BAME students

Richard Adams Education editor

26, Jun, 2020 @5:42 PM

Article image
Combine classes in case of Covid staff shortages, DfE tells teachers in England
Tories criticised for failing to tackle Omicron earlier as Covid infections are still high

Richard Adams and Andrew Sparrow

02, Jan, 2022 @6:56 PM

Article image
Education spending fall from 2010 to now was worst since 1970s – IFS
Promised increases will barely repair the squeeze felt since austerity began, report says

Richard Adams Education editor

18, Sep, 2019 @11:01 PM

Article image
Nearly half of teachers in England worried about Covid safety
Calls for new risk assessments to be conducted in schools as second lockdown begins

Sally Weale Education correspondent

05, Nov, 2020 @6:40 PM

Article image
English universities to honour admission offers 'where possible'
Government to lift cap on student numbers for some courses and provide extra funding

Richard Adams Education editor

20, Aug, 2020 @3:32 PM