UK Unveils £1 Billion Schools 'Catch-Up' Plan after Lockdown

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday said English schools would receive £1 billion ($1.2 billion) in funding to help pupils catch up after missing months of classes due to the coronavirus.

The announcement came as health minister Matt Hancock said the government had lowered the country's coronavirus alert level, after a recommendation by scientific advisers.

The move from Level 4, where transmission is high or rising, to Level 3, where the epidemic is in general circulation, was "a big moment for the country", he said.

The government is grappling for positive news after facing sustained criticism over a broken pledge to have all primary school children in England return before the summer break.

It is also struggling to get all pupils back for the new academic year in September if social distancing rules requiring people to keep two metres (6.5 feet) apart remain in force.

The new money includes £650 million for state-run primary and secondary schools to "lift educational outcomes", and £350 million to help tutor the most disadvantaged youngsters.

Headteachers will be able to decide how to spend the £650 million.

But the government said it expects it to be spent "on evidence-based interventions", in particular small group tuition.

Concern has risen about the impact of school closures on children, particularly those with no computer or internet access.

"This £1 billion catch-up package will help head teachers to provide extra support to children who have fallen behind while out of school," Johnson said.

- Regional variations -

British schools have been closed to most pupils since late March, when the country headed into lockdown as the virus peaked.

Some primary school year groups and older students preparing for exams were able to come back to school in England earlier this month.

But the government backtracked on the remainder, after concern from teaching unions about staff shortages, and restrictions on space due to social distancing rules.

Johnson is under growing pressure to relax the rules to one metre to make it easier for schools and hospitality businesses to restart.

Scientists said there had been a "steady" and continuing decrease in COVID-19 cases, indicating transmission was no longer considered "high or rising exponentially."

Hancock said the downgrade in the alert level was a sign the country was "getting back on its feet", after more than 42,000 deaths from over 300,000 positive cases. 

But there are regional variations about easing restrictions across the UK.

Scotland's schools are not scheduled to return until the new term starts in early August. Pupils in Wales are due to come back later this month before the summer break.

In Northern Ireland, most pupils are set for a return in late August after the devolved government agreed to cut the social distancing measure to one metre for pupils in school.

"I am determined to do everything I can to get all children back in school from September, and we will bring forward plans on how this will happen as soon as possible," Johnson said.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the government also hopes to allow providers running holiday clubs and activities for children over the summer to open "if the science allows."

"Guidance will be provided to the sector on how to implement the protective measures necessary to open safely, and to parents on how to minimize the spread of the virus if they choose to attend," he added.