The government has announced plans to close schools to almost all pupils from Friday afternoon.
This year’s summer exam series and SATs tests will also not go ahead, with ministers pledging to work with the exams regulator “to ensure children get the qualifications that they need”.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, announced the move in the House of Commons today, saying that official advice had changed and that the government was now at the stage where closures were necessary
The closure will apply to all children, except those of key workers and those who are “most vulnerable”, including those with social workers and education, health and care plans.
The list of jobs that constitute “key workers” will be published tomorrow, Williamson said, but it definitely includes teachers and other school staff.
Schools will also be “open for those children of key workers and those vulnerable children during Easter holidays as well,” Williamson said.
“The public health benefits of schools remaining open as normal are shifting”, said Williamson, adding that schools were finding it “increasingly difficult” to continue as normal.
“I know that all of this is not going to be easy,” he added. “I am asking nurseries, schools and colleges to be at the forefront of our national response to this crisis. Given the unprecedented asks we are making of all those who are working in educational settings at this time, I recognise we are asking so much of them.
“I recognise that what schools will be doing in these circumstances will look very different to the normal state of affairs, and we’ll ensure leaders have the flexibility that they need to face this challenge. In order to allow schools and other settings to focus on this new operational model, and the support they can give to these young people, we are removing various duties.”
He pointed to a decision earlier this week to suspend all routine Ofsted inspections, and said the government “will not go ahead with assessments or exams, and that we will not be publishing performance tables for this academic year”.
“We will work with the sector and Ofqual to ensure children get the qualifications that they need.”
A spokesperson for Ofqual said: “We welcome the certainty that the secretary of state’s decision not to hold exams this summer provides in these challenging circumstances.
“We will now work urgently with the Department for Education to work through the detail of this decision and to provide more information as soon as possible.”
Williamson also said that the government will give schools the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children who are eligible for free school meals, and will launch a national voucher system “as soon as possible”.
The DfE has also confirmed that the total value of vouchers offered to each eligible child per week will “exceed the rate it pays to schools for free school meals”, currently £2.30, recognising that families “will not be buying food in bulk and may therefore incur higher costs”.
“The final amounts will be confirmed shortly.”
It follows weeks of speculation about whether schools would close, and comes after most European countries took the decision to shut educational establishments.
According to government advisers, the reason for the delay here was because they wanted to enact the chance at the right time, while minimising the impact on families.
Williamson said schools would be closed until further notice.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said last week that school closures would have to go on for 13 to 16 weeks or longer to have an impact.