Education secretary seeks to reassure parents amid school reopening row as he apologises to students affected by Covid-19 outbreak
The Education Secretary has apologised to students who have missed school because of the Covid-19 outbreak, announcing plans to bring a limited number of pupils back to school from as early as next month.
Speaking at Saturday's Number 10 daily briefing, Mr Williamson said children in Reception, Year 1 and 6 - as well as Years 10 and 12 - can go back to school in smaller class sizes as part of a phased return starting from June 1.
He praised teachers for "going above and beyond the call of duty" for continuing to teach children of key workers, as well as making sure resources were available for children at home.
"You have simply been outstanding and we are so grateful for what you've done," Mr Williamson said. "We have been quite clear all along that we'd only start inviting more children when our five key tests have been met. That position has not changed nor will it."
He added: "We can now start the planning for very limited return to school for some pupils potentially as early as next month.
"There is a consequence to this, the longer that schools are closed the more that children miss out.”
Testing, which is already available for school staff, will be extended to their children and families from June 1.
Mr Williamson added that full and detailed guidance had been issued after working closely with those in the education sector, saying that the government will be “carefully monitoring” the impact of the first phase of school reopenings.
He said the return was in line with other European countries in terms of getting schools, colleges and nurseries back.
Mr Williamson added: "I know lots of you will be worried about sending your children to school. Every one of us wants the very best for our children and I know how stressful this time has been for families across the country.
"I want to reassure you that this approach is based on the best scientific advice, with children at the very heart of everything we do. Education is one of the most important and precious gifts that we can give any child."
Mr Williamson also expressed sympathy for students in Key Stage 3 and 4 who should have been taking vital exams during the pandemic.
He said: "At this time of year, GCSE and A-Level students would have been making final preparations for their exams while other students would have been enjoying their summer term.
"If you're one of them, as I've said before, I can only say how sorry I am that this has all happened to you this year.
"The sacrifices that you have had to make through no choice of your own. But the impact that this coronavirus has had on your life has made things so incredibly tough for all of you."
When asked about whether teaching unions were unaware of the benefits of opening schools for disadvantaged pupils, Mr Williamson said his "door is always open".