Secondary school students in England may have to drop some non-core subjects to focus on English and maths next year, officials have confirmed, as the government prepares to announce its plan for all students to return to school in September.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will on Thursday announce plans for how all pupils can return to full time education next year, with mandatory attendance for all and the threat of a fine if parents do not comply.
Pupils are expected to be organised in bubbles of up to 240 pupils in secondary schools, and will be allowed to mix freely within but not outside their group. There will be staggered start and end times to the school day and separate breaks.
The plans, confirmed by government officials, come after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last week that English schools would be able to return with “full attendance” in September.
The promise was greeted with scepticism by headteachers and unions, including Steve Chalke, the head of the Oasis chain of Academies, who said plans for a full return in September were “not viable”.
To enable children to return to school full time, the government is expected to drop social distancing requirements, although teachers will be advised to keep 2m away from pupils at the front of the classroom, and secondary school pupils will be advised to stay 1m apart where possible.
Officials accepted that while it would be complex to get all the protective measures in place, schools were a “unique environment” in which headteachers could monitor those coming in and out.
“It’s not like a shop, or public transport”, said one. “It’s a lot easier to control the population coming in and out of a school and introduce hygiene measures that reduce the risk of transmission.”
Officials have confirmed that under the plan, secondary schools could suspend some subjects entirely for two terms to create more time for students to catch up on English and maths, and that some students may have to drop non-core subjects at GCSE. They said that GCSE and A-level exams would take place next year with “alterations”.
According to the officials, attendance will probably be mandatory and parents who do not send their children to school will face fines initially set at £60 and rising to £120. But they insisted that fines would be a last resort, and that a sensitive approach would be adopted for children living with those who are particularly vulnerable.
However, Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, warned that schools should be “careful not to penalise families”.
“Schools are at the centre of communities and teachers have managed to build trust with many parents during the Covid-19 crisis,” he said. “The first step should be to show families that classrooms are safe, and understand the reason for non-attendance.”
John Jolly, the CEO of ParentKind, a charity representing parents, said there needed to be “clear planning” for a return to school. “I’m not convinced we have clarity yet about whether September is full time back, or blended learning with some work happening at home,” he said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said the government would continue to work with “school leaders, teaching unions and the wider sector” to finalise plans.
“We’ve said we want to see all children back at school in September — returning to full primary and secondary class sizes in a safe way,” it said.