School bubbles to end in July, Gavin Williamson announces

·4-min read
 (PA Archive)
(PA Archive)

School children will only have to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid-19, education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed on Tuesday.

Mr Williamson said the school bubble system, where whole classes can be sent home, will be scrapped from July 19, but arrangements for the final days of this term will be at the discretion of individual schools.

Summer schools will not need to organise children into bubbles and from August 16, those under 18 will no longer need to self-isolate after being a close contact with a case.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Williamson said enhanced hygiene and ventilation will remain in place for the autumn term, but masks will no longer be advised in classrooms or communal areas.

From September, secondary schools will be expected to provide two tests at the start of term, and regular home-testing will continue until the end of September.

Schools can stop staggering their start and finish times, but can continue doing so until the end of this term “if they wish.”

Mr Williamson also said: *NHS Test and Trace will now handle notification of Covid outbreaks in schools

*There will be no restrictions on in-person teaching at university.”

It comes as latest school attendance figures show the number of Covid-related pupil absence has hit a new high since schools reopened in March.

More than 640,000 pupils in England were not in school due to Covid last week – up from 375,000 the week before. Of these, just 62,000 were confirmed or suspected Covid cases.

Mr Williamson said: “Children are better off in classrooms with their friends and teachers. Millions of children and young people have been back in the classroom since March 8…this is hugely valuable for their wellbeing and education.”

He added: “I do not think its acceptable that children face greater restrictions over and above those of greater society.”

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Whilst the government might argue that scrapping bubbles and changing rules around self-isolation will reduce the number of pupils missing education, we should be equally worried about the significant rise we have seen in confirmed and suspected cases in a single week. These latest figures only serves to demonstrate why the government must take urgent action and put alternative measures in place to keep school communities safe. Simply hoping the problem will go away is not a realistic option.”

It comes after headteachers called for urgent and robust guidance about changes to school Covid rules, warning that children need “certainty and confidence” about going to school.

Full details of the changes were not included in Boris Johnson’s briefing about the lifting of wider restrictions on Monday. Headteachers had to wait until Mr Williamson spoke in the House of Commons for more information.

While many school leaders welcome the end of the bubble system, where children are sent home to isolate if they come into contact with someone with coronavirus, they said they need to know what will replace it, and it is “incredibly difficult” for them when information is scarce and delivered at the eleventh hour.

Nicola Noble, head of Surrey Square Primary school in Elephant and Castle, said: ““Yesterday we were being told by Public Health to be hyper vigilant with regards to infection control at our sports day and yet less than two weeks later we’re being told these measure won’t be necessary. This is extremely challenging as a school leader who is responsible for the safety of a school community.”

Suzie Longstaff, head of Putney High School, said she is “delighted” that school bubbles will be removed, but added: “We have all become adept at moving with speed and agility but we do need robust guidance as soon as possible, so that we can plan for the year ahead, and more importantly, so that we can give our pupils and parents certainty and confidence for next year it is incredibly difficult for all school leaders and their teams when information is scarce, is delivered at the eleventh hour and then is likely to change.”

She added that a vaccine for children is the only way of keeping Covid out of schools.

Vicky Bingham, head of South Hampstead High School, said Year 8 pupils at her school have been sent home three times this month because of the bubble system. She said: “I will not be sad to see the bubbles go…If we are to become test centres, we need as much warning as possible. Heads spent last summer dealing with Centre Assessed Grades, Christmas preparing to set up test centres which got delayed, Easter making sense of guidance for Teacher Assessed Grades and May half-term moderating. I’ve been teaching for 20 years. This is the most I have ever looked forward to the end of term, and I love my job.”

The government is also facing calls for clarity on exams in 2022. Labour published research that suggests the average Year 10 pupil – due to take GCSEs next year – has missed nearly one in four days of face to face teaching due to the pandemic. Shadow education Secretary Kate Green said the government should set out its exam plans for next year by September 1.

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