SECONDARY school pupils in exam years will return to the classroom a week later than planned, it has been announced.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed the change in policy on Wednesday afternoon.

Primary schools are still set to open next week but secondary school pupils in exam years are now due to return to education settings in the week beginning January 11.

All secondary school and college students will return full time on January 18.

Mr Williamson told the Commons it was a “last resort” that some schools needed to close where infection rates are highest but this does not relate to Dorset and BCP schools.

Universities have been asked to reduce the number of people on campuses, with online learning and testing regimes required.

He said: “We’ll be opening the majority of primary schools as planned on Monday, January 4. We know how vitally important it is for younger children to be in school for their education, wellbeing and wider development.

“In a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest we will implement our existing contingency framework such as only vulnerable children and children of critical workers will attend face to face.”

The education secretary said testing will begin “in earnest” in January, with those in exam years at the head of the queue.

Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood said there is a “strong argument” for schools to remain open if it is deemed safe to do so.

He told the Daily Echo: “If there is one grouping of society which will suffer the most it is the student population.

“Their education has been impacted in a way not seen since the Second World War. I think there is a strong argument, despite being in Tier 4, for Bournemouth schools to remain open if we feel it is safe.

“While this is an urban area, it is not a dense inner city scenario like London or some of the big urban establishments.

“We are very fortunate to have the space.

“Schools have good outdoor facilities and therefore we need to look carefully at what we can do to ensure all those involved in schools - the teachers, parents, staff, volunteers and pupils - can operate safely.”

He added: “I would advocate, in addition to the vaccines, that testing is critical because it gives you a better understand, a better intelligence picture as to where problems occur.

“If we can get our Armed Forces supporting that element that at least could help prevent the closure of schools.

“The best place for students is back in the classroom.”

Following a statement from Association of School and College leaders, Bournemouth School for Girls headteacher Alistair Brien said: “’The decision to further delay face-to-face teaching for secondary pupils is unsurprising in the light of rising Covid infection rates and the new strain of the virus,and seems sensible in these extreme circumstances.

“Nobody wants to see children out of school but the difficult balancing act between keeping education fully open and suppressing transmission of the virus has clearly swung in the direction of tackling the immediate public health crisis. While the new arrangements allow a little more time for us to prepare for mass Covid testing, I remain concerned about the huge logistical challenge of how we will roll this out.

“I will be writing to parents before the end of the week with further information.”