Schools can break up a day early at the end of this term, so staff can have a ‘proper break’ from track and trace over Christmas, the Government has announced.
Headteachers will be allowed to take an inset day on the last Friday of term to allow a ‘clear six days’ ahead of Christmas Eve, Schools Standards Minister Nick Gibbs told MPs, as he U-turned on previous advice. The Government’s Covid-19 Winter Plan last month told schools in England not to change their Christmas holidays or close early this term.
The move will allow teachers time off from engaging with track and trace during the festive holiday, but has been criticised for not being announced earlier.
Mr Gibbs’ comments came after a headteachers’ union said giving schools the option to switch to remote learning for the final few days of term next week is an ‘obvious and straightforward solution’ amid concerns around spreading coronavirus during the break.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, had also warned that attendance could drop dramatically next week as parents seek to prioritise family safety over Christmas. The pandemic has already seen huge numbers of pupils miss lessons.
But, addressing the virtual Education Select Committee on Tuesday, Mr Gibbs said: ‘We are about to announce that inset days can be used on Friday December 18, even if an inset day had not been originally scheduled for that day.
‘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 in the track and trace issues.’
His pledge came as Department for Education (DfE) figures showed that between 7% and 8% of state school pupils – up to 650,000 children – missed school for Covid-19-related reasons on Thursday last week.
Schools have been calling for more flexibility to end in-person teaching early to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus and being forced to self-isolate over Christmas.
Mr Gibb said the Government wants schools to stay open until the end of term as it is the ‘best place for young people for their education development’ and for their mental health.
But, he added: ‘We want to make sure that they (school staff) can have a proper break over Christmas. We know they’ve been under huge stress.
‘I don’t think some of these senior leadership teams of schools have had a break at all since the pandemic began.’
If schools do finish term on Thursday next week, they may have one less scheduled inset day in 2021, Mr Gibb said.
The NAHT’s Mr Whiteman criticised the lateness of the move, saying: ‘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.’
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ‘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.
‘It is frustrating also that the Government has taken so long to agree this decision as there is so little time left for schools to make the necessary arrangements.’
The move came after academy chain Focus Trust, which runs 15 schools in the North West of England and West Yorkshire, was forced to reverse its plan to extend the Christmas break by an extra week to safeguard staff and families following a Government intervention last month.
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