Gavin Williamson: 'Cheaper summer holidays' under school calendar shake-up plan

Parents would be able to book cheaper summer holidays under plans for a major shake-up of the school calendar, the Education Secretary has said.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Gavin Williamson said proposals for a five-term school year were being considered, in a move that could see the summer break shortened to four weeks and extra days added onto the May half-term holiday.

He said it was one of a "lot of different options" being looked at as part of wide-ranging education reforms, and would help families "get better value" for summer holidays.

However, the South Staffordshire MP said there were no plans to shorten this year's six-week summer holiday to help children catch up with learning missed due to the pandemic.

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Speaking to the Star, Mr Williamson said it was "fantastic" that schools are set to reopen on Monday having been closed to most pupils since early January.

He said he plans to lay out a major set of reforms to education in the coming months, including addressing "summer learning loss", which occurs when pupils struggle to keep up with work when returning from the summer holidays.

Mr Williamson said: "We're looking at a lot of different options to see what will deliver benefits for children. The five-term school year has been discussed, because there are issues with education loss.

"If designed correctly it might also help families to get better value holidays during the summer."

It is understood a German-style system is one of the options being looked at, where summer holidays would run at different times in different regions of the country.

Another option would be to reduce the summer holiday to four weeks, with other breaks such as summer half term extended to ensure the full 13 weeks holiday a year is maintained.

Mr Williamson said it was a great concern that youngsters had missed out on education while schools had been shut, but appeared to rule out shortening this year's summer break.

"We have provided money to help pupils catch up, including £200 million for summer schools, but there are no plans to shorten the summer holidays," he said.

Concerns over the cost of booking summer holidays have been heightened by the pandemic, with a study by consumer group Which? revealing that prices for UK beach destinations had been hiked by an average of 35 per cent this year.

Heartbreaking

As far as school closures go, Mr Williamson is hoping it is a case of “never again” as the country starts to head out of the pandemic.

The Education Secretary spoke of his heartbreak of having to close schools as Covid ravaged the country.

Now with cases and hospital admissions plummeting, he said the time was right for classrooms to reopen to all pupils.

And with testing regimes and safety measures in place at schools across the country, Mr Williamson said he was confident the shutdown announced on January 4 would be the last.

“I certainly hope that we are now in a situation where we never have to see schools close again,” Mr Williamson told the Star.

“In the first place it was heartbreaking to be in a position to have to close schools, and it was a delight when the Prime Minister said that schools would be back as part of the roadmap.

“We have been clear from the start that education is our national priority and we have been pushing at every stage for us to be in a position to open schools.

“Since schools had to close in January everything we have done has been working towards Monday and welcoming children back.

“Teachers and support staff have done an amazing job delivering remote lessons and keeping schools open for children of critical workers and those who are vulnerable. But all children need to be with their friends and they need to be in the classroom.

“It’s not just children who want to go back, it’s teachers, staff and parents – who recognise how much their children miss by not being in school.”

Mr Williamson said the “careful and cautious” return of pupils had been made possible because stringent testing regimes were now “up and running” in schools.

He added: “It is amazing the operation that has been set up and we’ve already had four million tests done in school settings. It has all been professionally run and is another system of controlling the virus.

“We have already seen that schools have done some excellent work in making sure their system of controls is in place. Testing is another protection on top of what is already there.”

Mr Williamson is adamant that asking children to wear masks in class is another “sensible precaution” in the fight to stop the virus spreading.

He has rejected calls to make it a legal obligation, saying that schools were a “controlled environment” where safety measures were already in place.

But he urged schools to follow guidance from the Department for Education, which said that pupils in Year 7 and above should wear masks wherever it is not possible to maintain social distancing, including in classrooms.

Amazing

“We’ve always said that we would follow to the letter the very best public health advice,” he said.

“This is something they have asked us to do and we think that schools will use good judgment. It puts another layer of protection there in order to be able to do everything we can do reduce the risk of transmission. For these few weeks, in the run up to Easter, it is a sensible precaution.”

Mr Williamson said he believes these protections will avoid the need for whole year groups to be sent home, as happened at many schools during the autumn. He said schools had done “an amazing job” in making sure that only pupils that had contact with a child or member of staff who had tested positive were sent home.

“What we saw is that the number of children that we being sent home as a result of one contact dramatically reduced all the way from September to December,” he said. “The fact that schools have become so good at managing that, hopefully means they will be able to minimise the number of children sent home.

“This is also part of the reason why we’re doing testing. Once we have established testing within a school, and home test kits are rolled out, it increases our chances of catching the infection before more people become infected and minimises the number of contacts. It keeps Covid out of the classroom.”

Last year Mr Williamson faced widespread criticism over his decision to use an algorithm to determine grades for A-level, GCSE and AS-level exams.

After apologising to young people and instead adopting a system where predicted grades were used for results, he maintains that it was “the right thing to do” to allow teachers to administer this year’s results.

“The best form of assessment is always examinations, but that wasn’t a route that was open to us,” he said. “I think that the best alternative is to put our faith in teachers. Not everyone will like it, but I believe it is the fairest approach we can take in these extraordinary and difficult times.”

The Education Secretary now wants to move forward with reforms in education. He has already approved school building projects and adds: “We’ve set out an ambitious reform plan for post-16 education, looking at vocational education and what we do with our colleges.

"The next stage is to look at how we continue to build on the amazing success of our schools. As we come out of this pandemic, we will be setting out very clearly our plans to make sure all children have the very best opportunity to succeed in life.”

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