New figures show around half of primary schools in England reopened to more children last week, as the government scrapped plans for all pupils to return before the summer holidays.
According to the Department of Education, around 659,000 children were at school last Thursday, 6.9% of all pupils who normally attend.
This was the first week that schools in England began admitting children in nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 as part of a phased reopening as the coronavirus lockdown is eased.
Schools have been shut in England since March because of the COVID-19 outbreak, although some remained open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
According to the Department for Education’s figures, 52% of education settings that normally accept at least one of these year groups were open to more children on 4 June.
The release of the figures comes as the government confirmed it has scrapped plans for all pupils in England to return to primary school this term before the summer holidays.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed the news in a statement to MPs.
He promised to “work with the sector” and said the government would like to see schools who “have the capacity” to bring back more pupils before the end of the summer term where possible.
Mr Williamson also said ministers were working towards bringing all children back to school by September.
He added that the safety of children and staff “remains my top priority” – and all staff and children will have access to a coronavirus test if they develop symptoms of the virus.
Mr Williamson told MPs the government was prepared to shut “clusters” of schools if new cases develop.
The announcement comes after demands from school leaders, teachers and governors for the government to reconsider its plans to send all primary school pupils back before the summer break.
Critics of the government’s approach said a full return for primary schools would be impossible because of capacity issues, staff shortages and social distancing.
Referencing the latest DfE figures, Mr Williamson told MPs: “We all know how important it is for children and young people to be in education and childcare and it is vital that we get them back there as soon as the scientific advice indicates that we can.”
He added: “Last week we saw the number of primaries taking nursery, reception and year one or year six pupils steadily rise as part of a phased, cautious, wider reopening of schools.
“By the end of the week more than half of primary schools were taking pupils from these year groups and as of yesterday that had risen to over 70% of primaries that had responded.”
The education secretary said the next step in the government’s “phased approach” would see secondary schools and colleges “provide some face-to-face support from 15 June for years 10 and years 12 and 16 to 19 students in the first year of a two-year study programme who are due to take key exams next year”.
Shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey expressed her “deep dismay” with the government’s handling of reopening schools.
“For weeks, headteachers, education unions, school staff and many parents have warned that the plans to open whole primary schools before the summer were simply impractical while implementing social distancing safely,” she said.
“So I welcome [Gavin Williamson’s] decision to roll-back from that today. However, I must state my deep dismay at the way this has been handled.
“If the government had brought together everyone involved in implementing these plans from the outset and really taken on board what they had to say, they would not be in the situation of having to roll back at all.
“But what’s done is done and now it is imperative the government looks ahead to what the education system needs over the coming months and years.”
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