Schools close in latest lockdown while future of summer exams remains unclear

While schools in England will remain shut until at least the middle of February, government messaging is mixed as to whether GCSE and A-level exams will take place in the summer

Primary and secondary schools in England are once again closed to almost all pupils, as the country enters its third coronavirus-related lockdown.

Learning will move online learning for all but vulnerable pupils and the children of keyworkers, for whom schools will stay open. Nurseries and early years settings are also being instructed to remain open.

While restrictions will remain in place until a review on 15 February, the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, has said the lockdown will likely extend into March at least.

The lockdown was announced in a televised address by the prime minister on Monday (4 January), a day after he had insisted there was “no doubt in my mind that schools are safe” and urged parents to send their children to primary schools if they were open.

It is so sad to see more life chances snatched away from this generation of children – Shaun Fenton, head of Reigate Grammar School

The blanket closure of schools has meant a sharp change in priorities for school leaders. During the Christmas break they had been working to comply with the Department for Education’s 18 December announcement that it was “strongly encouraging” schools to enable mass testing of pupils. Instead, focus will now shift to providing remote lessons for the next six weeks and beyond.

Government scientific advisers say that the number of school pupils with confirmed cases of coronavirus is “significantly” higher in the second wave compared with the first, with children more likely than adults to be the person introducing Covid-19 into the family home.

Despite the rise in the number of children infected, and the new variant of the virus, there has not been an increase in children being hospitalised by Covid-related illnesses.

Exam confusion

If the government’s position on school closures is, at last, unambiguous, the fate of this summer’s GCSE and A-level exams is much less clear.

This morning (5 January), Michael Gove told the Today programme on Radio 4 that exams would be cancelled and replaced by teacher-led assessments.

“My own daughter is due to sit A-levels this year, my son due to sit GCSEs – I know how hard students across the country between years 11 and 13 have been working,” he said.

“We will be putting in place alternative arrangements,” he added, with the plans set to be outlined by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, in the House of Commons tomorrow (6 January).

By lunchtime, however, it was being reported that exams in core subjects – such as English and maths – could still go ahead.

Earlier, when the cancellation of exams appeared a certainty, Shaun Fenton, head of Reigate Grammar School, had told IE: “The global pandemic requires that we all pull together and we will meet again, but it is still so sad to see more life chances snatched away from this generation of children. This awful but inevitable lockdown steals their opportunity to shine in exams.

“But they were never just exam fodder – their qualities of character were always going to make the biggest difference. These are tough times, and our young people will need our support to see ahead.”

Vicky Bingham, head of South Hampstead High School GDST, said a clear road map for an alternative to exams is now needed: “Yet again the rug has been pulled from under the feet of our young people and yet again I have been blown away by their stoicism at an uncertain and anxious time.

“What we need to give them now is a clear road map for an alternative assessment framework. Once we have agreed the decisions, we need to stick to the plan. We owe them that at least.”

Fenton added: “On a tactical note, I know that I speak for many headteachers when I ask: ‘Where do we apply to offer our school as a vaccine distribution hub for the local community whilst in lockdown? We can staff it, we have fridges, we have the space and facilities – how do we become part of the solution?’ We want to help.”

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