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COVID-19: Longer school days, shorter summer holidays and five-term years all under consideration, says education secretary

Written by on 7 March 2021

Longer school days, shorter summer holidays and five-term years are all options under consideration to help pupils catch up on lost learning, the education secretary has told Sky News.

Speaking to Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Gavin Williamson said the government is looking at a “whole range of different” proposals to help children amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re looking at holidays, we’re looking at lengthening the school day, we’re looking at a whole range of measures,” he said.

Mr Williamson said ministers were also considering “enhancing the support we give to teachers, supporting them in their professional development, making sure they can be the very best of themselves”.

He added that Sir Kevan Collins, the government’s education recovery commissioner, has been asked to “leave no stone unturned” in coming up with plans for a catch-up programme.

The education secretary stressed that the proposals would be “evidence based”, saying: “We’ve got to look at what is going to have the biggest positive impact on children’s lives.

“That’s the approach that we’re taking and that’s what we’re looking at – how we can improve the outcomes for children.”

Also speaking to Sky News, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman warned that the plans could backfire.

“There’s no point adding time here or moving time there if you don’t get a groundswell of support,” she said.

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Extending school day may ‘backfire’

“If children simply don’t turn up for extra time or summer schools, for example, you could end up putting a lot of effort into something that doesn’t achieve the objective.

“My concern is to make sure that we go with the grain of what parents will embrace to make sure that all children get the very most out of their education.”

The pair were speaking ahead of the return of all pupils to school in England on Monday.

Schools have remained open during the third coronavirus lockdown for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, but the majority of pupils have had to contend with remote learning.

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Pupils get ready to return to school

Boris Johnson said the full reopening of schools “marks a truly national effort to beat this virus” and the beginning of lockdown being eased.

Speaking during a visit to a vaccination centre in north London on Sunday, the prime minister said he thought schools were “ready”.

“I’m very hopeful that it will work, it will all go according to plan and that all kids, all pupils, will be back in schools tomorrow,” he said.

“I’m massively grateful to parents who have put up with so much throughout the pandemic and teachers who have done an amazing job of keeping going.

“I do think we are ready, I think people want to go back, they feel it, they feel the need for it.”

The four stages of England's lockdown lifting Image: The four stages of England’s lockdown lifting

He added: “You ask about the risk [of schools returning] – I think the risk is actually in not going back to school tomorrow given all the suffering, all the loss of learning we have seen.”

Pupils in secondary schools will receive three COVID-19 lateral-flow tests before using at-home kits twice a week.

Downing Street says nearly 57 million testing kits have been delivered to schools and colleges, and some have already begun testing students.

Ms Spielman said schools had put “extraordinary efforts” into remote learning.

Four tests for lifting lockdown Image: Four tests for lifting lockdown

“It’s been a slog, it’s been a real slog. Children on the receiving end are bored, lonely, miserable, anxious and really, really want the normal experience again,” she said.

Ms Spielman said pupils are “adaptable and flexible” around things like wearing face coverings and testing, and “can live with a little bit of inconvenience for a few weeks”.

“I think the overwhelming thing we’re seeing is the vast majority of parents, the vast majority of children and the vast majority of teachers are really happy to be going back to school,” she said.

“I really hope the whole paraphernalia of masks and testing is only necessary for a short time… I love the idea of children being able to come back in summer term able to see everybody fully.”

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Ms Spielman added that for the “vast majority of children the restoration of normality” should “lift those symptoms” of mental health issues such as loneliness and anxiety.

But she cautioned: “There is a minority, let’s hope it’s not too large a minority, whose problems have increased. Things like eating disorders, things like self harming… everybody needs to be alert to these.”

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