Working together, teachers, leaders and government will make a success of this critical return to full education provision from the autumn, writes Nick Gibb

Over the past few weeks, our country has begun the slow journey back to recovery from the awful effects of the virus. It has not been easy and we still have some way to go. But I hope that everyone working in education can, like me, start to see a path back to schools and colleges doing what they do best – helping all pupils and students reach their potential.

Throughout the pandemic I have been constantly humbled by the resourcefulness and dedication of our teaching communities, whether that is putting education materials online so that pupils can study remotely, or continuing to teach our most vulnerable children in a safe and supportive environment at school.

As you are reading this, the chances are that you are one of them, so I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for everything you have done to keep children engaged in education.

Since 1 June more and more children and young people have been back at school, whether that’s in nurseries, primaries, secondaries or colleges. Whatever their age or year group, it is vital for every child’s future prospects that they should be back there as soon as they can be.

As the rates of infection have continued to fall, we have now been able to outline our plans for a full return for all children in the autumn.

All children have been affected by closures. For some, there will have been increased anxiety as they were separated from their friends and the routines of being at school. For others, it was the disruption caused by cancelling exams they had worked so hard for. For all of them, Covid will have made a real dent to the academic progress they should have made over the course of the summer term. For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, this will have been a double blow.

We have already announced a £1 billion fund to directly tackle the impact of lost teaching time as a result of the pandemic.

We cannot turn the clock back, but we can try and make up for some of this lost time.

Reducing our hopes, standards or expectations for pupils at this point is not the answer. All schools have a mission to deliver a broad and ambitious curriculum, and today we have published guidance to help you continue to do that from the autumn when schools return in full.

Some adaptations may be needed not only to get children back to where they need to be academically but to keep them safe and well;  but there is no substitute for all children and young people to continuing  to be taught a wide range of subjects, giving them all-important choices for further study and employment.

To reduce risks of Covid infection we are asking schools to make sure that they keep contacts between pupils and staff to a minimum. We have issued guidance on ways of doing this, from staggered timetables to separating year groups, but we trust teachers to interpret this in a way that best suits the needs of their schools and their pupils.

We are following wider government guidelines on playing sport and music, and there will inevitably be an impact on what schools can teach in these areas.

We have asked schools to continue to build their capacity to deliver remote education, so that if it is needed locally – and we all hope it will not be – it is of a high quality and mirrors as closely as possible a pupil’s experience of being in school. Even when schools return in the autumn, there may be times when some pupils are not able to attend school, for example if they are isolating. So we need to be sure that they can continue their studies remotely if they need to.

To help with this, we have funded Oak National Academy to keep its virtual doors open for the next academic year. They are introducing much more flexibility into their lessons to fit with individual schools’ teaching patterns. The department has also been working with Oak to produce a new flexible curriculum map as an optional resource for schools to use to support their curriculum planning. It has been developed in consultation with teachers, senior leaders and subject experts, and will help schools to meet the curriculum expectations. As we continue to progress through our recovery, I have no doubt the time invested in this area will be invaluable in enhancing every child’s experience in- and outside the classroom.

For those students who are due to take GCSE, AS and A level exams next year and whose preparation has been thrown off course, Ofqual is consulting to determine what changes if any have to be made to those exams. Ofqual is considering a range of options, including the possibility of moving them back a little next summer to allow for more teaching time.

One of the first things we did when the outbreak first struck was to relieve the pressure on schools by suspending routine Ofsted inspections. Ofsted inspectors will visit some schools in the autumn to look at how they are managing the return to full education of all their pupils – but I can reassure teachers they won’t be judging schools. We expect full inspections to return in January, when inspectors will of course be sensitive to the impact of the pandemic.

Returning to normal educational routines as quickly as possible will be critical to our national recovery. It is also critical for the hopes and aspirations of a generation of young people. They are depending on us to get their education back on track.