School classes to merge if staff shortages climb too high, says Nadhim Zahawi

School classes could be merged if school staff shortages are too high, the Education Secretary has said.

January remains a vital month in the school calendar.

Nadhim Zahawi said the priority remains to keep schools open in January when he appeared on Sky News on Monday.

Nadhim Zahawi said priority is to keep schools open (Sky News)
Nadhim Zahawi said priority is to keep schools open (Sky News)

He told Sky News: “The priority is to keep schools open. The testing, the staffing support we’re putting in place, and of course the ventilation is going to make a big difference to schools this year.

“The most important thing is to keep them open. We monitor staff absenteeism, I just said to you we’re running at about 8% last year. If that rises further then we look at things like merging classes, teaching in bigger numbers.”

His comments come amid reports schools were drawing up crisis plans to send whole year groups home.

Elsewhere in his latest interview, Mr Zahawi said he had organised a separate supply of tests for schools ahead of children’s return to the classrooms.

The Education Secretary vowed all exams will be going ahead in the summer this year and insisted there would be a “big difference”.

He promised: “All exams are going ahead this year, this summer.

“I think there’s a big difference from last year to this year.”

Mr Zahawi also addressed the restrictions around face masks in the classroom.

He said he hoped guidance secondary school children should wear masks in the classrooms would not be in place “for a day longer than we need it”.

He told Times Radio: “It really is based on a couple of things.

“One, obviously UK Health and Security Agency recommendation, Omicron being far more infectious, and when you look at the epidemiological data from SPI-M on this, and we’ve done a piece of work in the department at the end of last year, with 123 schools, where we’ve done an observational study where they’ve adhered to mask wearing in classrooms.

“It’s one of a number of, I think, really important mitigations to make sure that education is fully open and children are in school, in class.

“What we’re saying is, look, with Omicron, because it’s so infectious, we want to make sure that we give you as many tools to be able to make sure that education is open.”

But he admitted it was “more challenging, of course, to deliver education with masks on in the classroom”.

He said: “This is an aerosol-transmitted virus and if you’re wearing a mask, if you’re asymptomatic, then you’re less likely to infect other people.”