Labour slams “government failure” as Williamson delays schools reopening

Elliot Chappell
© Bart Lenoir/

Kate Green has declared that the disruption to children’s education across the country has directly resulted from “government failure” as Gavin Williamson announced a U-turn on the planned reopening of schools next month.

Delivering a statement to parliament this afternoon on the return of children to schools after the Christmas and New Year break, the Education Secretary told MPs that the reopening of schools would be delayed until mid-January.

He told the Commons that “we must always act swiftly when circumstances change” and said evidence on the new variant of the virus and rising infections require “immediate adjustments” to the plans for schools next term.

Green said in response to the statement: “We should not be in this position. Only days before many schools should have been opening again to all pupils, the Secretary of State has announced that many will not be returning as planned.

“This delay and disruption to children’s education is a direct result of government failure. They’ve lost control of the virus, now they are losing control of children’s education.”

She argued: “There is consensus across the House that the best place for children is in schools but the government has failed to give schools the support they need to make that happen.”

Green added that “we know that action must be taken to control the spread of the virus”, but questioned whether the measures announced would work and asked Williamson to publish the advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

She also highlighted that Labour had “for months” been calling for mass testing in schools and slammed the government minister for only announcing it just before the term end, “creating huge additional work for overstretched school staff”.

The Shadow Education Secretary asked how many schools had testing infrastructure in place, how many would by the end of next week and for the government to guarantee that “every school will have the testing it needs when due to open again”.

The U-turn outlined by Williamson this afternoon came just 24 hours after the government insisted that it would be keeping to its plan to start a phased reopening of schools from January 4th.

Announcing changes to the government plans – published two weeks ago – days before the start of term, Williamson revealed that only pupils in exam years are set to return to secondary schools in-person in England on January 11th.

Williamson said that the rest of secondary and college students would go back on January 18th, and that “in a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest” only vulnerable children would go back to primary schools in person.

The government had faced sustained pressure from schools, unions and others to close education settings in recent weeks, at least temporarily, following a significant surge in the number of coronavirus cases across the country.

Williamson had already said secondary schools would reopen in January on a staggered basis, with only exam year groups, vulnerable children and those of key workers “prioritised” for testing and expected to return as normal after the break.

He had told the public that other pupils would receive “full-time remote education, as close as possible to that which students would get in class, during the first week of term with face-to-face education for all starting on 11th January”.

The phased return of children to educational settings across the country next month was announced by the Education Secretary alongside a plan to roll-out of mass testing with lateral flow test kits to be distributed for use in schools.

According to the plan, students and staff identified as having had close contact with a Covid case are to get a daily test over seven days while teachers are to get weekly tests. Schools and unions have described the proposals as “inoperable”.

Williamson used his contribution to parliament this afternoon to insist that testing in schools would begin “in earnest” in January with those currently in an exam year to be prioritised ahead of others.

Responding to the announcement by Williamson today, UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “Everyone agrees it’s important for schools and colleges to open but it can’t be at any expense when infections are rising.

“This delay for secondary schools is a sensible decision, giving more time to organise mass testing effectively to limit the spread. Primary and early years reopening should also be delayed because social distancing isn’t really possible.

“Ministers should also ensure any moves to extend the vaccine priority list must cover all school staff and not just teachers.”

The U-turn announced today, keeping schools closed, comes just weeks after Williamson’s department threatened local councils with legal action after they tried to move schools online for a few days before the Christmas break.

The statement from the Education Secretary followed the announcement by Health Secretary Matt Hancock this afternoon that three quarters of England would be placed under Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions from tomorrow.

There were 21,787 patients in hospitals in England with Covid as of Tuesday morning, according to NHS England data, and cases reached a record daily high of 53,135 – surpassing the April peak during the first wave of the health crisis.

Update, 7pm: Labour has called on the Secretary of State to return to parliament and apologise for falsely claiming that the “overwhelming majority” of primary schools would open as usual next week for the start of term.

The full list of primary schools, when published by the government 30 minutes after the end of Williamson’s speech in the Commons this afternoon, named a total of 49 local authority areas in which schools will close.

Green said: “Gavin Williamson told parents that the “overwhelming majority” of primary schools would open on 4 January. An hour later, he snuck out the news that hundreds of thousands of children will see their schools closed indefinitely.

“He must return to parliament this evening to correct the record, be honest about the numbers, apologise to parents, and outline his plans to keep pupils learning and support parents.

“Parents face yet another eleventh hour U-turn because of this government’s failure to deliver on testing, and failure to control the virus. Only a government that is completely out of touch with the needs of working families would treat them with such disregard.”

Below are those areas in which primary schools will remain closed.

Barking and Dagenham
Hammersmith and Fulham
Kensington and Chelsea
Tower Hamlets
Waltham Forest

Epping Forest
Castle Point
Southend on Sea

Tonbridge and Malling
Tunbridge Wells

East Sussex:

Milton Keynes

Three Rivers

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