Coronavirus: Colleges ‘expected’ to close from Friday

All colleges in England are “expected” to close from Friday as the government steps up its attempts to contain the coronavirus.

GCSE and A-level exams will also not take place as planned in May and June.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson made the announcements in the House of Commons this afternoon, where he  committed to continue funding providers for apprenticeships even where training is disrupted.

“The spike of the virus is progressing at a faster pace than anticipated,” he said.

“After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon they will remain closed until further notice.

“This will be for all children except to those of key workers and children who are most vulnerable. The scientific advice shows that these settings are safe for this small number of children to continue attending, but asking others to stay away will go towards helping us the slow the spread of this virus.

“Examples of key workers include NHS staff, police and delivery drivers who need to be able to go to work.

“Vulnerable children include those who have a social worker and those with an educational health and care plan.

“We are expecting early years providers, sixth forms and further education colleges to do the same.”

He added that the Department for Education is working with Treasury on the “financial support that will be required”.

The first colleges in England to close campuses and move to online learning in response to the Coronavirus outbreak were revealed yesterday.

On free school and colleges meals, Williamson said his department will give providers the “flexibility” to continue this offer by allowing them to purchase meals or vouchers for supermarkets or local shops.

He noted that some schools are already doing this and committed to reimbursing those costs.

The education secretary continued: “I know that all of this is not going to be easy. I am asking nurseries, schools and colleges to be at the forefront of this crisis.

“In order to allow schools and other setting to focus on this new operational model, we are removing various duties.

“Ofsted has ceased all routine inspections. I can confirm we will not go ahead with assessments or exams, and we will not be publishing performance tables for this academic year.

“We will work with the sector and Ofqual to ensure students vet the qualifications they need.”

When asked about how apprenticeships will be affected, Williamson said: “No one will be in a position where we take away the work that they have been doing in their apprenticeships.

“We have already made it clear to the college sector and the independent training providers who deliver so many apprenticeships that funding for apprenticeships is continuing.”

A spokesperson for Ofqual said: “We welcome the certainty that the Secretary of State’s decision not to hold exams this summer provides in these challenging circumstances.

“We will now work urgently with the Department for Education to work through the detail of this decision and to provide more information as soon as possible.”

Association of Colleges chief executive, David Hughes, said: “With partial college closures announced across the country it raises major challenges for staff, students and families, but protecting the nation’s health is vital during these uncertain times.

“We are working very closely with DfE and ESFA to manage the flow-on implications of this announcement and in particular the funding support colleges need to deliver.” 

In a letter to Williamson yesterday, Hughes warned that an average college might lose between £500,000 and £1 million per month of temporary closure and “very few, if any, will be able to cope without government support”.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said closing colleges was the “right decision” and his organisation will “continue to work collaboratively with the DfE and others to help address the challenges ahead”.

He added that they will be “particularly focused” on “ensuring that students – who have worked so hard over the past couple of years – secure fair and accurate grades in the absence of any formal assessments taking place this summer”.