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Schools will reopen in a “phased manner” when the coronavirus lockdown is eased, Gavin Williamson has said.
The education secretary refused to confirm a date, but told MPs that schools in England would not open their doors during the summer holidays.
Speaking before the Commons’ education committee, he said ministers would base their decision on advice from scientists, adding: “I do expect schools to be opened in a phased manner. I also intend to be giving schools as much notice as possible.”
Schools, colleges and nurseries across the UK closed their doors to the majority of pupils, apart from the children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters, more than five weeks ago.
Williamson said: “We recognise that the idea of schools all returning on day one with the full complement of pupils is not realistic or practical.”
He did not say which year groups could return first, but he said the government would learn from best practice in other countries, such as Germany and Denmark, where schools had begun to reopen.
The minister added that there was no plan to “run schools through the summer”.
His comments come after the Welsh education minister said on Tuesday that schools would not be reopening to all students any time soon, but that there could be a phased return for some pupils.
Asked whether teachers should get personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing in schools to ensure teachers were kept safe, Williamson suggested they may review advice when a phased return of schools began.
He said: “It is incredibly important that we get the right balance in terms of actually making sure that we create an environment that is good to learn in but also that is a safe environment for people to both work in and learn in as well.”
Williamson was also pressed on what the government was doing to ensure the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers did not widen amid school closures.
Tory MP Robert Halfon, chair of the committee, asked whether the government would support his idea of an “army” of volunteers – made up of retired teachers, graduates, and Ofsted inspectors – to help tutor and mentor disadvantaged children when the lockdown ended.
Williamson said the government was “open” to ideas, adding: “We are looking at different ways about how we can use the enormous volunteer army of people that have come forward, many with past education experience, many with an awful lot of knowledge in specialist subjects.”