Schools in areas with high coronavirus rates could remain closed after the February half term, Gavin Williamson has hinted.
The Education Secretary told MPs he wanted to reopen schools as soon as possible but admitted pupils could be forced to stay home in “some areas of particular concern.”
Primary and secondary schools in England were shut during the third national lockdown, after a last-minute u-turn by the Government.
Boris Johnson has said he wants schools to be the first thing to reopen when restrictions begin easing but it will be looked at in the first review of lockdown measures in mid-February.
Mr Williamson faced a grilling by the Education Committee, where Tory chairman Robert Halfon called for a commitment to reopening schools as soon as possible “signed in blood”.
He told MPs: “Obviously as I have said many times before I want schools to be closed for the shortest period of time available.
“But the contingency framework would be sat there to continue if there [are] areas of particular need where we had to have school settings continue to remain closed, it would be through the contingency framework that they would remain closed.”
Mr Williamson insisted that nurseries would remain despite a clamour from unions to rethink allowing early years settings to continue to operate due to coronavirus fears.
He told MPs: “I always want to be in a position to ensure that every child can go to school and, as you’ll be aware, transmissibility among those who are youngest is very low compared to all of the settings.
“So when you’re in a position to keep part of the education sector open in the early years, I believe it was the right decision to make because so many families really rely on that nursery provision.
“But most importantly those early years are so important.”
Pressed for a guarantee, Mr Williamson said there was “no intention” to shut nurseries.
Lockdown restrictions could continue until March 31 under laws passed by Parliament last week.
But the Prime Minister has pinned his hopes on the mass rollout of vaccines allowing the country to open up sooner.
Mr Williamson also defended his decision to threaten Greenwich Council with legal action for closing its schools on December 14 by claiming he was “not aware” at that point of the new Covid variant.
Yet Health Secretary Matt Hancock informed the Commons about the new variant on the same day.
Mr Williamson also said other local authorities had raised concerns with the DfE but Greenwich had not.
“What we had in the situation with Greenwich is, there was no conversation, there was no discussion that Greenwich had flagged up an issue beforehand.” he said.
It came as Mr Williamson also confirmed that mass testing will be rolled out in primary schools next week for teaching and support staff.
Plans were announced before the lockdown for a similar measure in secondary schools.
“If we’re testing a child, in essence we’re in a position where we’re also testing a household as well,” he told MPs.
“We’re extending staff testing as of next week to primary schools and I would like to see it rolled out to all pupils, that’s my ambition – that’s where I want us to get to.”
Teachers and staff will self-administer the tests at home, with a £78 million support package from the Government to pay for the plans.
He said staff would not be asked to test primary-school pupils but ministers are considering a system where parents could test their children at home.
Mr Williamson also said he was pushing for all school staff to be prioritised for the coronavirus vaccine once the most vulnerable have had the jab,
“There’s a school workforce of a million and it is absolutely vital that we do not forget support staff in this because it is often the support staff that are the most exposed,” he said.
“It is quite understandably right that the Government has chosen to prioritise those that are most at risk of being hospitalised (for vaccination).
“But … in that next wave where we have to prioritise others, I will make no apology for the fact that I see the top priority as all those who work in schools.”