Home PoliticsPolitical News Secondary schools return set to be delayed after protests they are not ready for mass testing

Secondary schools return set to be delayed after protests they are not ready for mass testing

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The return of English secondary schools is likely to be delayed until mid-January, as ministers bow to pressure to allow more time for mass testing.

The new plan, expected to be confirmed on Wednesday, would see only vulnerable students and those of key workers in classrooms next Monday, far fewer than the government hoped.

Pupils sitting GCSEs and A-levels next summer would start returning the following week, a week later than planned – only when schools are in a position to provide the testing promised.

All secondary students would be due back in schools for lessons from 18 January – again a week later – with primary schools opening from next Monday as planned.

If confirmed, the delay will be a further blow for Gavin Williamson, the blunder-prone Education Secretary, who had vowed to win a Cabinet battle to stick to his pre-Christmas timetable.

But school leaders had protested they had not been given time to introduce mass testing – even with the overnight promise to send in the Army to help them.

And leading scientists have been pushing for delay, alarmed by the spread of the new, more infectious variant of Covid-19, amid evidence of higher transmission among teenagers.

They include Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s Nervtag advisory group, who said: “Clearly nobody wants to keep schools shut.

“But, if that’s the only alternative to having exponentially growing numbers of hospitalisations, that may be required at least for a period. There are no easy solutions here.

Prof Ferguson added: “My real concern is that even if universities, schools, do have staggered returns or even stay closed, how easy it would be to maintain control of the virus is unclear now, given how much more transmissible this variant is.”

The new plans, revealed by the Times Educational Supplement (TES), are yet to be signed off by Boris Johnson, it is believed.

They were worked out at a meeting involving the Department for Education, Department of Health, Cabinet Office and Downing Street yesterday, the TES said.

But teaching unions have yet to be consulted, with many secondary heads reported to be “furious” about being “left out in the cold”.

Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis, one of the largest multi-academy trusts, also called for a rethink, saying: “We would suggest a week or two’s delay to think it through, to do it well.

“And we think that if you really care about kids you would do this well – to invest now, to give time now, makes sense.”

The prime minister’s spokesman said: “We’re still planning for a staggered opening of schools and we are working to ensure testing is in place.

“As we have said throughout the pandemic, we obviously keep all measures under constant review.”

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