Coronavirus: 8 things we learned from Gavin Williamson on plans to reopen schools

2020 exams

Gavin Williamson has defended plans to begin the phased reopening of schools on June 1, hitting out at the “scaremongering” of those raising concerns.

Summoned by MPs to the House of Commons to face questions about the proposal today, Williamson said the plans are a “sensible and responsible” approach to getting more children back to school.

The education secretary was forced to attend the session after Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, secured an “urgent question” on the matter.

Here’s what we learned.


1. Sector will get scientific briefings

Asked by Moran to share the scientific advice that informed the government’s decision on schools reopening, Williamson told the Commons he was “more than happy” to share “all the advice that we have received” from SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory group.

He also revealed he’d asked scientific advisers “to give briefings for the sector” to “help them understand” the decision.

“When you have medical and scientific advice that is saying that it is the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do so, and the only responsible thing to do,” he told MPs.

He did not give a date for when any advice would be published.


2. Plans are ‘responsible and sensible’

Long-Bailey, the shadow education secretary, urged Williamson to consider changing his plan, so that instead of aiming for a fixed date, schools were asked to meet certain conditions “that when met would signal it was safe to open, a subtle but very important distinction”.

But the education secretary defended his plan, saying: “We have said that if we are allowed, which it seems likely that we will be able to, we would like to see schools opening from June 1, giving schools as much forward notice as possible in order for them to get ready.”

He said this was a “responsible and sensible approach”.

Williamson also insisted the “only consideration” behind the decision to aim for a June 1 reopening is “what’s in the best interest of the welfare of children and those who work in schools”.

“The reason that we’re bringing schools back is that we know that children benefit from being educated by their brilliant teachers in front of them,” he said. “We recognise that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the ones that are going to suffer the most if we do not bring schools back when we are able to do so.”


3. Williamson slams unions’ ‘scaremongering’

Mary Foy, the MP for the City of Durham, said unions were clear there could be “no compromise on health and safety”, and called the proposals “ill-thought-out and reckless”, and warned they could “set off a chain of new infections back into the households of working people”.

Williamson said the “only consideration” behind the decision was the “best interests and the welfare of children and those who work in schools”.

But he added: “Sometimes scaremongering and making people fear is really unfair, and not a welcome pressure that is to be placed on families, children and teachers alike.”


4. Government is ‘mirroring’ Denmark’s approach

Williamson was asked about the approach to reopening schools in Denmark, which began a phased return of primary pupils in mid-April.

The education secretary said the government had “looked at countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands and many others to understand how they’ve done it”.

“And what you’ll see is a mirroring in approach as to what happens in Denmark as to what we’re doing here in the UK. And I think that is the right approach because what you’ve seen is you’ve seen that schools have started to return in Denmark and you have not seen negative impact as a result of that.”

After his comments, some highlighted it was a pointless comparison  – for instance Denmark has had 533 deaths while the UK has had over 30,000.


5. Year 10s and 12s will go into school to have learning needs ‘assessed’

During the session, Williamson was asked what the government meant by “face-to-face support” for year 10 and 12 pupils, because there isn’t much detail on that part of the proposal in the government guidance.

Williamson said he wanted “all children in those year groups to have the opportunity to go into school and speak with their teachers”.

Those teachers will then “make an assessment of what learning and support that they need to have over the following weeks as we approach the summer holidays, but also making sure they set the work at the right level so through the summer holidays children can benefit from learning through those six weeks”.

“It is important to get these transition years back into schools, even if it is for not a full timetable, but this is a first step in the right direction,” he added.


6. Schools will get ‘flexibility’ on reopening

Former education secretary Damian Hinds pushed Williamson for an assurance that “within the clear guidelines, headteachers will also be afforded maximum flexibility to make this work for each school’s unique circumstances”.

Williamson agreed that “we need to make sure that schools have the flexibility to work within these guidelines to make the proposals work for both staff and for children”, but didn’t say more.

School leader unions have already said heads can refuse to reopen if they don’t think it’s safe.


7. Williamson meets unions ‘every single week’

The education secretary has come under fire after Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT leadership union, revealed yesterday that his organisation had not been consulted on the government’s specific plans.

But Williamson said that “at every stage, every single week I’ve been meeting with union leaders” and “other sector leaders”, and said he would “continue to do so”.

“We’ve shared our thinking very widely as to what we were hoping to do,” he added.


8. Grammar schools face ‘additional challenges’

Steve Baker, whose Wycombe constituency is in Buckinghamshire, one of the few counties in England with grammar schools, asked what consideration was being given to the “special situation” of selective schools.

Williamson said he was aware of the “additional challenges” faced by grammar schools, “especially with the consideration of the 11-plus in September”, and said he had also been lobbied by Tory MPs in Kent, which is also a selective area.

“We’re going to be looking at working with local authorities who have grammar school systems in their area as to how best we can ensure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are not disadvantaged as they look at taking the 11-plus in the future.”








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  1. Sandy Brown

    Our government has looked at Denmark.! ?!
    My son lives in Denmark – some of the differences: they closed their borders, they did not allow the virus to go rampant, they cycle virtually everywhere in wide cycleways and they care!

    We need an accountable government that values everyone, young and old, regardless of race, creed, colour and Ability. All sectors should be provided with PPE. Our people need concise, clear and thinking leadership and guidance.
    We are still on ‘catch up’ with so many taking the consequence of poor decisions and pure rhetoric.
    Schools are about learning and caring, not Just about economics.
    We should trust our professionals as they are the front line in all public sectors and those who work to give a decent service to our society.

    • ‘Boris’ told SKS at PMQs today that international comparisons were not helpful. He removed the international comparisons slide from the No. 10 daily briefing yesterday. Williamson looking at Denmark!

      I know one is for comparison and one is strategy but really. In order to build confidence the Government need to consult and present a coherent narrative. Nicola Sturgeon finds out UK Government policy from the newspaper. DfE Scientific Chief is not consulted on schools opening further.

      It is not a good look. Again.

    • Lucille Rigden

      I taught briefly in Denmark. They also have fewer pupils per class. The school I taught in had classes of a maximum of 18.

      Gavin Williamson said we are opening for the needs of the children. What happens if the staff start getting ill? What happens if their teacher dies? How will that affect their mental wellbeing. We are not talking about head-lice here. This virus kills people including children. If there is scientific evidence that the risk is very small then publish it.

  2. J reader

    Heads, teachers and governors have training on maintaining health and wellbeing of pupils and staff. This is one of the occasions when safe options need to be taken.
    The schoolchildren in a film clip from Denmark were not social distancing at all. They were just told to cuddle themselves not others.
    If that’s the advice we are supposed to impart, get ready for the 2nd wave!

  3. Chris Evans

    This is astonishing that he compares us with Denmark and the Netherlands…neither has anywhere near the total of number of deaths the UK has and they aren’t still recording hundreds of deaths everyday.

    My solution would be not to open this academic year now other than for vulnerable children and those of keyworkers. Let teachers get better at online learning platforms whilst we are partially open (we are using Seesaw) to mitigate lost learning time. Then, if conditions allow, pupils return to their current Year group in September (and if possible current teacher) and they catch up the term they have missed. In January, the new academic year starts including new Reception intake and transition to Secondary schools. And going forward the academic years run in sync with the calendar year. The 6 week Summer holiday can stay the same as pupils would come back to the same teacher and so there would be less slippage as they can pick up quicker than coming back from a long break and teachers having to get to know the children.

    • ManchesterMet

      I agree until the academic year syncs with the calendar. It doesn’t need to – for one year only, we have a two term year. We have time to plan for it (now!) and then we return to the normal calendar. I have talked about January transition to anyone who’ll listen – it makes a lot more sense than trying to transition in July/September. And it would be very good for the mental health of our children.

  4. Keith Legge

    The decision to allow primary schools year 1 and year 6 to return to school must consider the safety of children and staff, and based on sound science. Judging by current track record of the medical and scientific expert advisors to the government, I have little or no faith in these advisors, and/or their recommendations, if the decisions made by government are the indicator of their assessments. As a scientist, I have seen no scientific or medical evidence which validates the government’s decision to “allow primary school children to return to school for at least one month before the summer”.
    As a school governor, I feel that better guidance to decide when children and staff can return should be made by individual school leaders, with agreement by governors, after consideration of all factors associated with safety, the individual children’s needs, and agreement by their parents.
    This is not a matter for government to follow the needs of the economy before peoples safety. It will be unacceptable to balance the pros and cons of the arguments by matching up now which path kills the least number of people. The decision should taken at the appropriate time when the outcome results in the fewest excess deaths for the whole population, not on the expediency of a poor judgement at this arbirary “politically justified” opportunity.

  5. Despite understanding the general concept of ‘people going back to work = people needing childcare’ as an early years practitioner I really struggle to see a way in which children,parents and staff will be safe and protected when nurseries and schools re-open.
    Social distancing is impossible to maintain with the little ones, many parents will have no other choice but to send them as their employers would most likely demand return to work and many practitioners’ responsibilities were already overstretched even before the virus. Throw in the lack of scientific clarity about transmission between children and adults, the almost ridiculous guidance about group sizes and the government’s apparent lack of competence and co-ordination in the handling of the Covid crisis and it all becomes a recipe for a disaster.

  6. Batman

    A once in a life generation chance is being missed currently.

    If the government had the foresight they could of reopened all the schools to Disadvantaged Children only – making it compulsory

    Used the Summer Term 2 as an opportunity to close the gap.

    Then resit the entire year next year; this will benefit all children and give some of the most disadvantaged, like they keep highlighting, the best possible chance in life.

    Yes it would cost more money, but I expect the amount would be a drop in the ocean compared to what all of this is costing us, and the economic benefits of educating all children to improved levels post Brexit transition arrangements would reap rewards.

    * I appreciate special schools would under this scenario be full, however, alternative options could be sought for those children in SEN schools

  7. Chris Law

    As a parent of 2 primary age children and 1 secondary. The worrying part of all this to me is the fact that 15 pupils in a class clearly undermines the 2m rule which we are all living by then compounded by the fact that NO mention of any PPE being provided to staff and also NO mention of bleach which in my understanding is banned for use in schools to effectively clean the school. At every step of lockdown we have acted to late I’m afraid we are going to act too soon and potentially see more key worker deaths in teachers a profession which struggles to maintain quality professionals as it is. So who will take responsibility and be held accountable for teachers being forced to work with no protection and goverment lockdown guidance thrown out the window so as a parent would you send your child to school knowing this??

  8. Cathryn McKeagney

    How can the government think that June 1st is an appropriate time to open? Some Primary schools should still be in half term, though the government have forgotten that, like they forgot Easter holidays. I do believe they had a break over Easter despite the situation! So taking away half term, not that schools are closed, and ensuring that teachers are very anxious over this time then expected to go in and teach 15 students. Stop using the argument about disadvantaged students. It is nothing less than expecting teachers to gamble with their lives. Tell the truth, they want schools reopened so once again we become childminders. Scaremongers! Disgrace. Tell that to those who were trying to warn the government about this crisis whilst they played about in who was head boy and shout about Europe.

  9. Louisa Jane Pitt

    Working as a support staff within a Primary School. I have observed this about young children. 1 . Serving school lunches , children will find it difficult to social distance while in a line for school dinners. 2. When asked to use hand gel or wash their hand’s before ;will go unsupervised unless you follow them about to check. 3. Outside in the playground the equipment used for play is handled and shared with all the pupils . 4. Learning material’s inside the class room eg. pencils /pens etc. are all use everyday by everyone. 5. Logically keeping pupil’s distanced within a seating plan within a classroom will be hard to maintain. end.