United Kingdom

When will schools reopen in the UK, and is it safe to send my child back?

  • Primary schools will reopen on June 1, as part of Boris Johnson’s blueprint for reopening the UK, according to reports.
  • Education Secretary: Schools will have a “phased” re-opening
  • When pupils do start returning, it will probably begin with certain as yet unspecified year groups

Parents want to know when they can send children back to school. Continued school closures will have a detrimental impact on pupil progress, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, acknowledged earlier in the lockdown. But he added that he did not want schools to reopen until it is “safe”.

Below we answer the most frequently asked questions about when primaries and secondaries will reopen, how this time away from school will affect children’s learning, and what parents can do in the meantime to support their children at home.

  • Over lunchtime on Tuesday May 5, the Telegraph’s Education Editor, Camilla Turner, answered your questions on when and how schools could reopen. You can find Tuesday’s Q&A at the bottom of this article. 

School closure timeline

Schools have been shut since March 20. In an unprecedented move, GCSE and A-level exams will not take place; instead, GCSEs, AS and A-levels will be awarded in July based on mock data, individual assessment and prior attainment. Many have questioned the accuracy of these, particularly for black and minority ethnic, working-class and other marginalised students. Students may also be allowed to sit exams early in the next academic year or in summer 2021. 

Amid a grim economic forecast, Ministers had said they want younger pupils to return by May 11, arguing that restrictions cannot be relaxed until workers’ children are back in education. However, school heads have said the earliest “realistic” date to begin the phased return of pupils to the classroom is June 1.

While a study released by University College London concluded that closing schools may not have a big impact on preventing the spread of Covid-19, around the world most schools have been closed for more than a month.

Figures from the Department for Education show that the impact of the lockdown has been far greater on education than the Government anticipated: ministers had estimated that up to 20 per cent of pupils (children of key workers and vulnerable kids) would attend emergency school; in fact, fewer than one per cent are attending

When will schools reopen?

Boris Johnson is expected to announce the phased reopening of primary schools  on June 1. The Prime Minister is expected to unveil the Government’s “roadmap” out of the coronavirus lockdown in an address to the nation next Sunday, after ministers take stock of a study showing the rate of the virus’s transmission in the UK.

The Prime Minister is hoping to put teachers on three weeks’ notice to reopen primary schools in England to all pupils on June 1, Whitehall sources told the Telegraph. Ministers have asked the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to look again at whether people need to stay so far apart, amid growing evidence that coronavirus does not transmit well in the air, and concerns that that will be an unrealistic expectations in schools.

Year 10 and Year 12 pupils are expected to form the first wave of secondary pupils returning to school at a later point, if such a move would be deemed unlikely to increase the transmission rate over the threshold that Mr Johnson warned could result in a dangerous second peak.

Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union, had previously suggested that Years 6, 10 and 12 might go back first, with June 1 the earliest “realistic” date.

But the National Education Union had earlier written to ministers asking to see the government’s evidence on the impact of re-opening schools. It warned that acting too early would likely result in an “increased risk” to staff and children, and could “undermine people’s resolve to stick to social isolation”.

Maintaining social distancing remains the biggest challenge. “We are considered to be the strictest school in Britain and even we would find it impossible,” Katharine Birbalsingh, head of the Michaela school in Brent, North West London said earlier this month. 

Who will go back first?

There has been no official answer on this  yet. Earlier in April, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of schools, warned that students may have “lost out on so much” of their GCSE and A-level courses that they may need to repeat a year.

While some education experts have pushed for older pupils to return first in order to catch up on exam prep – despite the cancellation of exams this year – this Icelandic study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that under-10s should start back first, as they are far less likely to test positive for the virus. Earlier theories had suggested that younger children simply had milder symptoms, but this study suggests they’re less likely to contract the virus.

And indeed the Government has suggested that it would send primary school children back first in order to minimise the threat to early years development and help parents to return to work.

Read more: How to keep the kids entertained at home

Will private schools be different?

Leaders in the independent sector have said that private schools may not need to stagger classes as much as state schools because they the tend to have more space. Fee-paying institutions, which generally have smaller class sizes to begin with, could use sports halls and theatres to teach more of their pupils while social distancing measures in place.  this has exacerbated concerns of the ways in which the coronavirus lockdown has increased the gulf in education between the most and least privileged children in Britain.

What are other countries doing?

Denmark started a phased return to school on April 15, with some parents protesting and keeping their children at home. In Wuhan, where the virus started and schools have been closed since January, officials announced that final-year pupils would return to the classroom on May 6. In France, schools will reopen gradually from May 11, starting with kindergartens and primary schools; pupils aged 11-15 will be expected to wear face masks.

State by state in Germany, children have returned to the classroom starting with the oldest primary school or those about to take exams. Classrooms there show careful social distancing.

Where schools have reopened in China, children are wearing masks and in some places they have their temperatures checked by thermal imaging cameras on arrival.

Will it be safe to send my kids back to school?

Rates of death and infection in the UK remain contentious, but it is clear that healthy children contract the virus at a far lower rate than older people or those with compromised immune systems.

The Education Secretary has said he will not re-open schools until scientific advice suggests that it is safe to do so.

Will schools close again if it continues to spread?

This seems likely unless the Government completely changes strategy. But any spike in cases will put pressure on the NHS and the Government will be forced to react to that.

Read more: How easily can children catch coronavirus?

Will private school fees be refunded?

No. Some schools have reduced their fees, but most have said they must charge normal summer fees in order to pay their costs. Nurseries have been more varied in their approaches.

Until schools re-open: here’s what to do

While we wait for schools to re-open, we’ve compiled expert advice on how to support your child’s learning during lockdown.

What does this mean for learning?

On the one hand, the British education system is sensibly repetitive. “Homes aren’t schools, and nor should they be,” notes Dr Dan O’Hare, an educational psychologist at the University of Bristol. “The worry is that children need a lot of ‘learning’ – but the curriculum is pretty repetitive and they’ll have covered it before, and will cover it again. Schools have been pretty good at saying that – this is not school at home.”

Dr Kevin Stannard, Director of Innovation & Learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust, echoes this point: “We’re calling this guided home learning, to highlight the teacher role, which is crucial.” While his schools broadly began with a similar schedule to what pupils would have in school, after Easter many will transition to include more breaks and possibly even Wednesdays as independent learning days. 

Unsurprisingly, Dr Stannard says younger children will need more help from parents: often when you’re into the exam stage of education, there’s a structure that you can find to adapt. “With the juniors, what you can’t do is provide a virtual learning environment throughout the day. You also need hands-on, offline activities.”

Read this: The amount of home-schooling your child really needs – according to the professionals

Parental focus should be on the social, not the academic

But the greater loss during this period is social, says Dr O’Hare. Whether age four or age 14, children rely on classroom interactions to build and maintain the social skills that will carry them through life. Adolescent development relies on peer identity. To keep that skillset going, Dr O’Hare says social media, with parental supervision, can be a very positive tool. 

What should schools be doing to support children?

On April 20, the Government launched Oak National Academy, alongside the BBC’s launch of a package of learning resources. The Oak National Academy enterprise was set up by 40 teachers from schools across England, backed by government grant funding. It provides 180 video lessons each week, across a broad range of subjects from maths to art to languages, for every year group from reception through to year 10.

But as this lockdown continues, one thing has become apparent to most families in Britain: we need teachers. Whatever we are managing to do at home is not a substitute for classroom learning. Many schools have arranged for teachers to keep in touch with parents, and I expect this will increase if the lockdown lasts through the summer term. If we can manage this well, we can have safe but regular contact between teachers and parents, which could lead to a more collaborative approach to education, in which we together take stock of where the child is and advise which sorts of resources to use. Parents need professional guidance.

Read this: Two-thirds of children have not taken part in online lessons during lockdown, study finds

Can I choose to home school instead?

Here is the Government’s guide to applying to home educate your child. If your child has a compromised immune system you should speak to your school about remaining at home throughout the coronavirus crisis, even if there is a staged reopening of schools.

Read more: Best free online resources for homeschooling

How can I home school my kids? 

Home schooling, or “home educating”, as its supporters prefer, relies on a rich catalogue of resources already available online – and ample parental involvement. 

Here is a guide to educating your child at home, including the best online resources for remote learning, science experiments and apps to foster reading and maths skills, plus GCSE and A-level prep. 

Q&A with our Education Editor Camilla Turner 

The below is from a Q&A with readers from Tuesday, May 5. You can submit a question for our next Q&A by emailing your queries to [email protected] 

‘I am very unkeen for my children to return to school’

Our first question comes from John Jagman in the comments section. John asks: 

“I am a relatively healthy widower in my mid 50s with two teenage children who are presently being schooled online. While children are very unlikely to die from Covid, I have read that 75 per cent are asymptomatic, meaning there’s a high risk that they could get the virus at school and give it to me. If I were to die from the virus (as Boris nearly did), the consequences for my children would be catastrophic.

“I am therefore very unkeen for my children to return to school until we either have a vaccine, or effective drug treatment or a better knowledge of who is at risk of severe disease. What can I do if schools reopen?”

Here’s what Camilla has to say:

The Government has not yet announced whether it will be compulsory or optional for children to attend school when they do reopen. Headteachers believe that parents should have the right to choose whether to send their children to school, particularly if children or other members of their household have underlying health conditions which makes them more likely to develop severe health conditions if they catch coronavirus. Ministers are likely to confirm in the coming weeks what the position will be.

It is true that there are still gaps in scientists’ knowledge about the levels of transmissibility in asymptomatic children. Last week, Prof Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, said there is “no reason” to think children would not be able to transmit if they are symptomatic. But he added that the “big question” is how many children have the virus but are asymptomatic, and how transmissible it is between them, saying: “The true answer is that evidence is still emerging in children who don’t show symptoms.”

‘We have two children with asthma and are worried about them being exposed’

Our next question comes from a reader who’d like to remain anonymous. They ask:

“We have two children, one who has asthma. When schools return, will children be forced to attend (as per normal) or will there be an option to continue homeschooling until treatment or vaccine is available? Will the government enforce schooling at school. We are very worried about our children being exposed during the coming months.”

Here’s Camilla’s answer:

The Government has not yet announced whether it will be compulsory or optional for children to attend school when they do reopen. Headteachers believe that parents should have the right to choose whether to send their children to school, particularly if children or other members of their household have underlying health conditions which makes them more likely to develop severe health conditions if they catch coronavirus. Ministers are likely to confirm in the coming weeks what the position will be.

‘Is there a date in sight for reopening schools?’

Our next question comes from Tilly Bean via email. Tilly asks: 

Do you know whether the government has a date in sight for reopening schools yet or is it too soon?

Here’s what Camilla has to say:

There has been no official public announcement from the Government on this, but one is likely in the coming days. Whitehall sources have indicated that primary schools are expected to reopen on June 1 at the earliest, which is just after the May half term break, with Year 6 pupils likely to be the first back. 

The reopening of schools is going to be phased, with different year groups coming back at different times. This is so that schools are more able to observe social distancing, which headteachers say will be impossible if all pupils came back at once. 

The earliest possible return of primary schoolchildren is intended to minimise the threat to “early years development” and help parents to return to work.Year 10 and Year 12 pupils are expected to form the first wave of pupils returning to secondary school at a later point.

‘Will university students get extensions on assignments?’ 

Our next question comes from a reader who’d like to remain anonymous. They ask:

“I have a daughter in her last year at university that has just closed.  Will they get extensions on assignments if they are not cancelled due to the amount of stress and pressure the students are currently under?  And what about university Exams will they also be cancelled?”

Here’s what Camilla has to say: 

Since universities are all independent and autonomous organisations, they are each coming up with their own policies on how to proceed in the current climate. However, they do have to adhere to guidelines from the higher education regulator, the Office for Students, which has the power to issue financial penalties to universities that breach conditions. 

Most universities have cancelled all traditional exams and come up with an alternative way to award students their degrees, often with online assessments. Many universities have also promised to have a “no detriment” policy meaning they will ensure that final year students will not be at a disadvantage compared to other years. You would need to ask these questions to your daughter’s university to get a more precise answer.

‘Will there be social distancing in schools?’

Our next question comes from a reader who’d like to remain anonymous. They ask:

“Will there be social distancing in schools? Or will the classes be full? Will the children be safe?”

Here’s Camilla’s answer:

Yes, schools will be expected to observe social distancing rules where possible. 

Schools will reopen in a phased manner with certain year groups returning at different times. This is to make it easier to keep children two metres away from one another. With fewer children in school on any one day, schools will be able to split class up into multiple classrooms, so that desks can be pushed further apart. Break times and lunch time, as well as the beginning and end of the school day and lessons could also be staggered to avoid having lots of children in corridors, in the playground or at the school gates at the same time.

‘How will coronavirus affect students studying their GCSEs?’

Our next question comes from Clare Rusher via email:

“I am a mother of a year 10 students, how will coronavirus affects students currently studying their GCSE`s with exams taking place next year ? All Year 10 students will miss 4 months of teaching from an actual teacher. Online learning is a great medium but it is not the same as face to face teaching.”

Here’s Camilla’s answer:

There is a great deal of concern among headteachers that students in both Year 10, who are in the middle of their GCSE course, as well as those in Year 12, who are in the middle of their A-level course. It is likely that when schools do reopen, these two year groups will be prioritised for an early return. The Department for Education has said there are currently no plans for either Year 10 or Year 12 students to have to repeat a year of school. 

Ofqual, the exam watchdog, says that it appreciates that Year 10 and 12 students are experiencing disruption to their courses, but has said that it is “too soon to say” how much impact this will have on their performance in exams next summer. If there is evidence to suggest that they will perform worse in their exams next summer, as a result of the disruption caused by missing so much school, then Ofqual says it will work with exam boards to ensure the students are not disadvantaged. They have not specified what this will entail. 

‘My four-year-old won’t stick to a two metre rule’

Our next question comes from Steph Cable via email. Steph asks:

“My four nearly five-year-old is in Reception at a state primary in a small town. There is no way he would stick to a two metre rule. He will be so excited to see his teacher and class mates he is likely to break the rule within minutes of getting through the gates.

“It is a small school without room to distance the children in the classrooms. The playground and PE will be non-starters for social distancing. How is this safe?” 

Here’s what Camilla has to say:

Schools will be expected to enforce social distancing as much as possible when schools reopen. However, there is a recognition among headteachers that there is a limit to how possible this will be, particularly with younger children. 

In terms of safety, there is a difference between young children and adults in terms of the transmissibility of coronavirus. Prof Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, said there is “no reason” to think children would not be able to transmit if they are symptomatic. It is expected that children who display symptoms of coronavirus should stay at home and isolate, along with the rest of their household, rather than go to school. 

However, Prof Powis added that the position on the transmissibility of asymptomatic children is less clear, explaining: “The true answer is that evidence is still emerging in children who don’t show symptoms.” 

‘When will there be clear guidance for Year 11 students?’

Our next question comes from Alison via WhatsApp. Here’s what Alison’s has to say: 

“When do you anticipate that some clear guidance regarding Year 11 students will be provided i.e. exam results, appeals process, college applications etc?”

Here’s what Camilla has to say:

Ofqual, the exam regulator, has already issued guidance on some of these issues. For example, it has confirmed that A-level students will receive their results on August 13 and GCSE students will receive theirs on August 20. 

We are still waiting to hear more details about the appeals process from Ofqual. So far, they have said that students will be able to appeal against their predicted grades only if their schools believe there has been some kind of data error or processing error. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has said that he is very keen for students to have the opportunity to sit an “appeal exam” in autumn or as soon as it is reasonably practical. This is so that students can prove that they can get a higher grade than their predicted grade. 

Details on the autumn appeal exams have not yet been finalised. Ofqual recently did a consultation on this issue, and are due to report back with the response “later this month”. 

For college applications, it is likely that individual colleges may have their own processes in place with timelines and deadlines, so it is worth checking to see if they have any details specific to them on their websites.

‘Will children be tested?’

Our next question comes from Tara ColettaTara asks:

“All of my children have had huge outbreaks of cough/fever at school stemming back to before Christmas. Where are children on this pecking order of testing? It would only take testing a few children from each school to establish how widespread the virus may be.”

 Here’s what Camilla has to say:

The Government has not yet announced anything about testing for children so it is unclear at this stage what, if any, plans there are for this.

‘How will students catch up on missed work?’

Our next question comes from Carolyn Jarvis in the comments section. Carolyn asks:

“What would the plan be if schools are still only part-time in September? They can’t ask children who have missed 14 out of 39 weeks of this academic year to progress to the next academic year in September part-time? Especially the younger children who are going to take weeks to settle back into a school environment after months and months off in social isolation.”

Here’s Camilla’s answer:

Each school is likely to come up with its own plan on how to make sure pupils can catch up on any important work they have missed while schools are closed. It is unlikely that there will be any Government policy making children repeat a year of school, but each school will decide what the needs of its pupils are and how best it can cater to them.

‘Where can I find information about safety in schools?’

Our final question comes from Mike via WhatsApp. Mike asks:

“Where can one find the best information about safety in schools  as they start to open?”

Here’s what Camilla recommends:

The best place to look is the Department for Education’s website for their official guidelines on safety in schools. Currently, the guidelines they have published on their website refer specifically to the current period when schools are open only for a small number of children (the most vulnerable and those whose parents are key workers). These guidelines are likely to be updated in due course to include information about safety in schools when they reopen for more pupils, so the best thing to do is keep checking their site. 

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