Timeline: The row over school closures in England

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·5-min read

The debate over whether pupils should be in class in England has been raging for weeks.

Teachers and parents have been left confused over whether children should return to school following a series of announcements and U-turns from the Government in the run-up and during the festive break.

Here are some of the key moments in the row on school closures and testing over the past month:

– December 8:

Schools in England were told they could take an inset day on the last Friday of term so staff have a “proper break” from identifying potential coronavirus cases ahead of Christmas.

It came after heads called on the Government to give schools the flexibility to switch to remote learning for the final few days of term amid concerns about the safety of staff and families over the holidays.

– December 10:

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that secondary school pupils in the worst-affected areas of London, Essex and Kent would be tested for coronavirus.

The decision to keep schools open in the final week of term was questioned by unions following a rise in infection rates among secondary school pupils.

But Mr Hancock said keeping schools open was “right for education and for public health”.

– December 13:

Schools in Greenwich were asked by the council to close and switch to remote learning in the final week of term due to rising coronavirus rates.

– December 14:

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told Greenwich council to keep schools open to all pupils or it would face legal action.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Williamson issued a temporary continuity direction to the London Borough of Greenwich demanding it withdraw letters to head teachers and parents which advised schools to close.

It came after London mayor Sadiq Khan had called on the Government to consider closing all secondary schools and colleges in London early and reopen later in January due to coronavirus.

– December 15:

The leader of Greenwich Council said he has “no choice” but to ask schools to remain open following threats of legal action from the Government.

Mr Williamson welcomed the decision as he said children’s education was a “national priority”.

The Government announced that every secondary school and college in England would be given access to rapid coronavirus tests from January.

– December 17:

Ministers announced that secondary school and college pupils’ return to class in England would be staggered in the first week of January to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.

Exam-year students were told they would go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays, but the majority of secondary school pupils would start the term online.

– December 18:

Headteachers, governors and teachers were told they would receive the “full support” of their union or professional association if they decided they could not carry out coronavirus tests at the start of term.

Education unions and professional associations jointly warned that testing in secondary schools and colleges would not be ready at the start of January due to the Government’s last-minute announcement.

– December 21:

Boris Johnson said he wanted schools to reopen as planned at the start of January, but he said measures were being kept “under constant review”.

The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference that the Government wanted secondary school pupils to return to face-to-face lessons in a staggered way in the new year if they “possibly” could, but he said the “commonsensical thing to do” was to follow the path of the epidemic.

– December 28:

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the Government hoped the staggered reopening of schools in England would go ahead as planned.

Amid concerns about the rise in Covid-19 cases, Mr Gove said ministers were confident primary school pupils and Year 11 and Year 13 pupils in England would be able to return in the first week of January.

– December 30:

The Government announced primary school pupils in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 would not return to class as planned from the start of term, with the Government putting its U-turn down to rising infection rates and the spread of the new variant of coronavirus.

Ministers announced that Year 11 and Year 13 pupils would return to school a week later than planned, from January 11, while other secondary and college students would go back on January 18.

But Mr Williamson said the vast majority of primary schools would return on January 4, apart from students in parts of London, Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire, and Hertfordshire.

Coronavirus – Mon Jan 4, 2021
Schoolchildren make their way to primary school in Leeds (PA)

– December 31:

The Education Secretary said he was “absolutely confident” that there would be no further delays to school reopenings and he said the rescheduled staggered return dates would remain in place.

His comments came as minutes from a meeting between the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and ministers on December 22 revealed members had warned that schools needed to be closed to bring down transmission.

– January 1:

Mr Williamson announced that all London primary schools would remain shut to most pupils at the start of term, instead of just those in certain parts of the city as he had stated earlier in the week.

The Education Secretary said the U-turn on the capital’s primary schools was a “last resort”.

– January 3:

The Prime Minister told parents to send primary-age children back to schools which remained open this week despite growing calls to close them.

Boris Johnson said he understood concerns about children returning for the new term, but said he had “no doubt” that schools were safe and that education was a “priority”.

A number of councils urged the Government to allow schools to remain closed in other areas, while teaching unions called for all schools to be shut for a fortnight at the start of term.

– January 4:

The Prime Minister announced that primary schools, secondary schools and colleges will move to remote education from tomorrow, except for vulnerable children and the children of keyworkers, until the February half-term.

Mr Johnson said the move on schools means “it’s not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer, as normal”.