Plans for all England’s primary children to return for a month before the summer break have been dropped by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.
Confirming the move, he told MPs he wanted all children back to school in September and that “exams will take place next year”.
Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey expressed “dismay” at how the plans for bringing back pupils had been handled.
Head teachers’ leaders said the plan had never been a practical possibility.
It comes as new figures on the number of children attending schools were published by the Department for Education.
How many pupils are really going back to school?
Primary pupils in England in Reception, Year 1 and 6 began to return to school last week – and DfE figures show how many attended, based on 4 June.
This was in addition to the children of key workers and vulnerable children who have been able to keep going to school through the lockdown.
The first official figure on take-up show that about three quarters of those who could have returned to school were still at home – reflecting that almost half of schools were not open for extra pupils.
- 52% of primary schools opened for extra pupils
- 11% of primary pupils were in school – about a quarter of those year groups who could have gone back
- 659,000 children were in all schools, including children of key workers, almost 7% who would normally attend, up from 2.6% before half term
The education secretary told the House of Commons that there was a “cautious, phased return” to school – but that would no longer mean all primary year groups going back before the end of term.
Mr Williamson said that schools that had the capacity could take more pupils if they chose.
But the Shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said the plan for bring back all primary pupils had always been “simply impractical” and she accused Mr Williamson of failing to listen to the advice of the teaching profession.
Head teachers had warned several weeks ago that it was not a realistic possibility to accommodate all primary year groups at the same time, with social distancing limiting their capacity.
Class sizes are now only 15 pupils or less – so if each class occupied two classrooms, school leaders argued that they would have no space for all year groups to return.
“The ‘ambition’ to bring back all primary year groups for a month before the end of the summer term was a case of the government over-promising something that wasn’t deliverable,” said Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union.
“It isn’t possible to do that while maintaining small class sizes and social bubbles,” he said.
By Hannah Richardson, BBC Education reporter
Today’s announcement makes formal what head teachers and governors in England have been saying for some time.
It’s not possible to increase the space each class needs to meet social distancing rules, and bring everyone back.
There’s not enough room.
While Number 10 and the education secretary pushed on with the plans, they lost the support of some groups of parents, people working in schools and teaching unions.
There are the concerns that having more pupils in schools will contribute to an increase in Covid-19 infections, both among pupils and staff and in their communities, and the inconclusiveness of the scientific evidence on this.
Balanced against this are also the very real fears of parents, about how on earth they are going to manage with their youngsters at home for another two or three months – minimum – let alone keep up to date with their educational needs.
The announcement means that many primary school children, outside of Reception, Years 1 and 6, will not be back in school until September.
Apart from some lessons for Years 10 and 12 from 15 June, secondary schools will also not return until September – and the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said the prospect was “deeply worrying”.
“It’s a disruption we’ve not seen since the Second World War,” she said, warning that “the education divide is broadening” and “almost a decade of catching up on that education gap may well be lost”.
Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, called for a national strategic plan to get schools open as soon as possible. He also warned that with schools remaining closed the majority of pupils would lose 40% of their time in class this year.
Parents’ views are mixed
One mother told the Today programme that she was “unsurprised” but “incredibly disappointed” by the news.
“I feel really sad for my son. I’ve got one son in year two and another one in reception.
“My child in reception [has] gone back, albeit only four days a week, every other week.
“And my older son, who is just about to turn seven, is desperate to go back, can’t understand, thinks it’s so unfair – which it is.”
But another mother, with two children aged eight and six, disagreed.
“I’m actually relieved if schools don’t go back until September because I think it’s too soon.
“They don’t socially distance at that age. I don’t think there’s enough protective equipment available in school.”
“I think we’re a strange country in which we turn a blind eye to mass demonstrations all over in every city, we campaign for pubs and cafes to open and yet we say to open schools before September is too risky,” said Mr Halfon.
Schools in Wales will reopen from 29 June to all age groups for limited periods during the week, while Scottish schools are to reopen at the start of the autumn term on 11 August, with some continued home-learning.
Some Northern Irish pupils preparing for exams and those about to move to post-primary schools will go back in late August, with a phased return for the rest in September.
The UK has recorded its lowest daily rise in the number of coronavirus deaths since before lockdown on 23 March, according to the latest government figures.
A further 55 people died after testing positive with the virus as of 17:00 BST on Sunday, taking the total to 40,597.
There tends to be fewer deaths reported on Mondays – due to a reporting lag over the weekend.
The figures came as a study estimated lockdowns have saved more than three million lives from coronavirus in Europe.
Researchers from Imperial College London used computer models to predict the spread of the virus if no restrictions had been put in place in 11 European countries, finding that the “death toll would have been huge” without lockdown.
In the UK, the lockdown prevented 470,000 deaths up to 4 May, according to the study.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), less than a fifth of deaths registered in England and Wales during the last week of May involved Covid-19 – the lowest proportion since the lockdown began.
There were 9,824 deaths registered during that week – less than the previous week, but still 1,653 deaths higher than what would usually be expected, the ONS said. Of these, 1,822 involved the virus.