Boris Johnson has said schools will receive £300 million of new money for catch-up tutoring as he confirmed that hopes of all pupils returning to class after the February half-term have been abandoned.
The Prime Minister said he hopes it will be safe to begin the reopening of England’s schools from March 8 – if the Government achieves its target of vaccinating the most vulnerable groups by mid-February.
Pupils in England, except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils, were originally told they would move to remote education until February half-term.
But the Prime Minister has said it will no longer be possible to reopen schools by this date.
Children eligible for food parcels or vouchers will receive these until they return to school and a “programme of catch-up” will be put in place over the next financial year, Mr Johnson has announced.
In light of the delay of reopening schools, the Prime Minister said a further £300 million of new funding will be given to schools for catch-up tutoring.
He said the Government will work with the education sector to develop initiatives for summer schools and a Covid premium to support catch-up.
He added: “We recognise these extended school closures have had a huge impact on children’s learning, which will take more than a year to make up.
“So we will work with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure pupils have the chance to make up their learning over the course of this parliament.”
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on the Prime Minister to vaccinate all school staff during the February half-term, once the first four categories of the most vulnerable have been vaccinated, ahead of any reopening.
He said: “There’s a clear week there where that could be done and it should be done.”
In response to the call, Mr Johnson insisted that “schools were safe”.
He said: “The problem is that they bring communities together, obviously, and large numbers of kids are a considerable vector of transmission. It’s not that there’s any particular extra risk to those involved in education.”
Education unions have warned it could be too early to commit to the reopening of schools on March 8, with one teaching union leader arguing that immunity of the four most vulnerable groups “is not enough in itself”.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “What is clear from the Prime Minister’s statement is that there are too many unknowns, such as the effectiveness of the vaccine and the pace at which infections are falling, to put the March 8 date firmly in the diary yet.
“The Government now needs to collaborate with school leaders and their teams to make sure that there is a workable plan for lifting the lockdown.”
Mr Whiteman reiterated calls to prioritise the teaching workforce for vaccinations to reduce the disruption to education amid staff absences.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), accused the Prime Minister of “falling once again into his characteristic and too often misplaced optimism” by setting out a potential date of March 8.
She said: “If we come out too early, we will end up in lockdown again. Hinging his argument for schools according to the first four vaccine groups developing immunity by March 8, is not enough in itself.
“This may protect the elderly and most vulnerable adults in the population, but it does not protect parents. It fails completely to recognise the role schools have played in community transmission.”
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: “Given previous experience, the announcement of arbitrary dates for schools to reopen to all pupils can be profoundly unhelpful to parents and to those working in schools.
“However, a clear plan for how schools will be fully reopened whenever the lockdown restrictions are lifted remains a key question which the Government must now work urgently and openly with the profession to address.”
Dr Roach called on the Government to deliver urgent extra support to families during the lockdown – especially those who face serious financial difficulties.
In June last year, Boris Johnson announced a £1 billion plan to help pupils in England make up lost learning time following months of school closures.
The Prime Minister said £350 million would be spent on the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) over the 2020-21 academic year to help the most disadvantaged pupils, while an additional £650 million would be shared across schools to help children from all backgrounds who have missed lessons.
The Department for Education (DfE) said the additional £300 million of new money for tutoring – announced by Mr Johnson on Wednesday – will be used in early years settings, schools and colleges to help children catch up.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson: “I know that this virus will have had a significant impact on children and young people’s learning and that is why we are providing an additional £300m for tutoring programmes and developing a longer term plan to help all pupils catch up.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the Government’s new commitment to extra catch-up support, adding that he looked forward “to seeing the detail” of the fund.
He said: “What is crucial is that the Government ensures that full reopening is done in a way which is safe and sustainable, and which inspires the confidence of education staff and the public.
“It must straighten out the confusion over the use of rapid turnaround coronavirus tests, review its guidance on safety measures for schools to make sure these are fit for purpose, and set out a timetable for the vaccination of education staff.”