Most secondary school pupils who are not preparing for exams will learn at home for the first week of the next school term in January, the government has announced.
The Department for Education has said that students in exam year groups, vulnerable pupils and the children of critical workers will all attend school in person from the start of term, “as will all students in primary, special and alternative provision schools and colleges”.
But secondary schools and colleges will “operate a staggered return, offering all non-exam year groups 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 January 11”.
However, vocational exams scheduled for the week of January 4 will go ahead as planned.
It follows speculation that the Christmas holiday would be lengthened.
However, ministers are understood to be insistent that their plan does not amount to an extension of the break because those pupils at home will be learning remotely.
The timing of the announcement has provoked a furious reaction from unions.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL leaders’ union, said it “beggars belief that this announcement is being made now, right at the end of term, and after the government has spent the last few weeks refusing to contemplate the idea of remote learning and threatening schools with legal action if they dared to suggest such a move”.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the move “demonstrates ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action in response to the exponential rise in Covid-19 infection rates amongst secondary school pupils”.
She also raised concerns about the expectation, confirmed earlier this week, that secondary schools begin to run mass testing of pupils from the new year, adding that the presence of year 11 and 13 pupils on school sites as the testing is being set up “will be extremely problematic”.
“This announcement follows a long and ignoble tradition by this government of treating school leaders with contempt. Trust is completely broken.”
Ministers announced on Tuesday that secondary school staff will get routine weekly tests from January and that staff and pupils who were close contacts of positive cases will also get a daily test for seven days so they don’t have to self-isolate.
The DfE has since announced that schools will be sent additional tests so that secondary pupils can have two tests, three days apart in the new year, even if they are not a close contact of a confirmed case.
The government has also announced that armed forces personnel will be drafted in to help plan for its mass testing programme.
Army personnel were involved in the pilots of mass testing in Liverpool and in three schools in Lewisham, Poole and Salisbury earlier this year.
The DfE said they would support the new regime “directly through planning with schools and colleges”.
But the National Education Union today branded the testing programme “inoperable”, and questioned advice from the government that schools should mobilise volunteers and parents to help out.
In a letter to Gavin Williamson, the union said: “Running such medical procedures is significantly outside the experience and job description of existing school staff and volunteers. School leaders are anyway facing significant staff shortages due to the pandemic. What studies have you carried out about the feasibility of recruiting such staff, and volunteers?”