Minister cannot say whether all primary pupils will return before holidays

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It is “difficult to say” whether the Government’s ambition to get all primary school children back to school before the summer holidays will come to fruition, an education minister has said.

Schools Standards Minister Nick Gibb did not confirm that the Government’s proposal had been given the green light, but he suggested that rotas could be used if there is wider reopening.

The Government previously announced its ambition for all primary school pupils in England to return to school for a month before the summer break began in July.

But Mr Gibb told MPs that the final decision will be led by the science.

He said: “We don’t know until we see more evidence of the R factor continuing to reduce over the next few weeks.”

Tory MP Christian Wakeford asked what plans are in place for primary schools that have “no room” to accommodate all year groups from mid-June.

Addressing the virtual Education Select Committee, Mr Gibb said that rotas could be introduced if primary schools are also reopened to Years 2 to 5 to ensure social distancing takes place.

His comments came after Boris Johnson announced that the Government is pushing ahead with plans to reopen primary schools to Reception, Year 1, and Year 6 pupils from June 1.

MPs asked the minister to explain why a single national approach is being taken to reopen schools when there are large regional differences in the level of infection, such as the North of England, and to set out how the Government is reassuring the public that schools are safe to reopen from Monday.

It comes after ministers have come under pressure from teaching unions and councils, who have urged the Government to reconsider their plans to open schools more widely next week.

But Mr Gibb said: “I am very optimistic and confident that the vast majority of local authorities are planning to reopen their primary Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from June 1.”

Durham County Council has become the latest local authority to advise against reopening schools next week as it says June 15 is a “more realistic date”.

Mr Gibb acknowledged that there are some areas in the country, including Durham, which have “issues” with reopening in the next few weeks, but he said the Department for Education (DfE) is working with these councils.

The minister confirmed that a decision on whether schools will reopen to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 will be taken on Thursday after the Government has reviewed scientific evidence.

“Unfortunately the events over the bank holiday weekend by Mr Dominic Cummings has meant the Government’s message has been undermined.

“Even though the law may not have been broken, the spirit of the law has indeed been broken.”

Mr Gullis, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, said he has been contacted by parents, teachers and academy chains asking how they can regain confidence in the Government’s messaging.

In response to the questioning, Mr Gibb said: “The more we all adhere to the rules, the more that we’ll be able to make further progress in reopening schools.”

Asked why a rota system was not recommended by the Government for the year groups due to return on Monday – despite modelling from scientists – Mr Gibb said it is “better for children to have full-time education consistently” and for parents to be able to return to work.

Mr Gibb said he understands that around three in five schools currently have a sufficient stock of personal protective equipment (PPE) ahead of more pupils returning next week.

He added that PPE is a “scarce resource” and staff working in care homes and the NHS must continue to be prioritised.

Mr Gibb said that clinically vulnerable teachers and staff are safe to return to work from next week if social distancing measures are in place at the school.

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