Institute of Teaching

Schools will be allowed to designate December 18 as an inset day to enable staff involved in track and trace to have a “proper break” from Christmas Eve, the schools minister has said.

Nick Gibb told the Parliamentary education committee this morning that the Department for Education wanted there to be a “clear six days” after schools break up so that contact tracing does not continue into the festive days.

Schools Week revealed last week that schools had been warned by councils they would effectively be “on-call” until Christmas Eve to assist with contact tracing.

Leaders have been waiting for the government to confirm how far into the holidays they’ll be expected to respond to track and trace issues, but no guidance has been forthcoming.

But Gibb revealed this morning that more information will be set out “later today”.

“We want there to be a clear six days so that by the time we reach Christmas Eve, staff can have a proper break without having to engage with the track and trace issues,” he said.

“So we are about to announce that inset days can be used on that Friday, December 18, even if an inset day had not been originally scheduled for that day. It will mean there will be one less inset day in 2021 that might have been scheduled. But that helps them deliver those six days, and we’ll be saying more about that later today.”

He said he acknowledged the “huge stress” school staff have been under, adding: “I don’t think some of the senior leadership teams of schools have had a break at all since the pandemic began.”

The DfE has reportedly said that for a child or staff member who tests positive for Covid, but has not been in school in the time period two days before the onset of symptoms to 10 days after, there will be “no requirement for any contact tracing to be carried out with the school”.

But this doesn’t take account of pupils or staff who might exhibit symptoms within two days of leaving school but not get a positive test back for several days after that.

Gibb’s comments come after the DfE refused an academy trust permission to run two inset days at the end of term.

The proposal had been put forward by Focus Trust as a potential measure to “safeguard the wellbeing of staff and pupils and protect precious family time together” over the festive break.

But the trust U-turned on its intention to close early after being threatened with intervention by the DfE.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL leaders’ union, said he had hoped for more flexibility, and criticised the government for taking so long to make a decision.

“A single day is better than nothing, but it still means that school and college leaders will have to continue contact tracing in the event of positive cases through to Wednesday December 23.

“It also leaves them responsible, at very short notice, for informing families that they will need to self-isolate over the Christmas period.”

Paul Whiteman, who leads the NAHT union, added that some families and schools “will still regard this as insufficient to meet their needs, and it may still force some hasty reorganisation of activities in the last week of term, which could have been avoided if the government had been more proactive”.

“A chaotic and disruptive end of term is still possible, especially in areas where there are large numbers of Covid cases and high levels of staff and pupil absence already.”