What does lockdown mean for school, college and university students?

student writing at their desk, with a face mask lying on top of their books

England is being put under a second national lockdown from 5 November until 2 December, but schools, colleges and universities will stay open

On 1 November, Boris Johnson announced a second national lockdown across England to try to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Under these tougher coronavirus restrictions, restaurants, pubs and non-essential shops will close from 5 November until 2 December, and everyone will be asked to stay at home unless they have a specific reason they need to go out – to exercise, for example, or to go food shopping.

The rules aren’t quite the same as they were for the last lockdown though, with a key difference being that schools, colleges and universities are set to stay open this time around.

Here’s what the latest lockdown in England means for students at school, college or university.

students in a lesson at school

Will schools and colleges stay open?

The government has said that schools and colleges will stay open as usual.

The government’s guidance on the new national restrictions said that schools and colleges need to stay open so that next summer’s GCSE and A-level exams can go ahead, “as they are the fairest and most accurate way to measure a pupil’s attainment”.

“We therefore need to keep schools and colleges open so that [students] are able to keep progressing towards exams and the next stage of education or employment,” the guidance explained.

Not everyone is happy about schools and colleges staying open, though, with some education leaders calling for them to be closed to make the lockdown more effective in fighting the spread of Covid-19.

“Schools are an engine for virus transmission,” commented Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU).

“Ignoring the role of schools and colleges in the spread of the virus is likely to lead to the need for even longer lockdowns in the future,” Courtney added.

And in a recent poll, 53% of TSR members said that they thought schools, colleges and universities should not remain open.

“I understand how important education is, and how hard learning at home can be… however I don't see the point of taking these measures when schools stay open. Year bubbles have always confused me as a concept, and I feel as though it just won't work,” said TSR member ashtolga23.

The government has maintained that schools and colleges will stay open despite these calls for closures.

student taking an exam

How will next summer’s GCSE and A-level exams be affected by the lockdown?

GCSE and A-level exams are scheduled to go ahead as usual in England next summer – although they have been pushed back to three weeks later than usual to help make up for lost teaching time when schools were closed in the first lockdown.

The 2021 exam series will start on 7 June 2021 and end on 2 July 2021, with A-level results day happening on Tuesday 24 August and GCSE results day on Friday 27 August.

This new exam timetable is not related to the second lockdown announcement, and it was decided a few weeks earlier in mid-October.

The main reason that the government has said that schools and colleges will stay open is to allow next summer’s exams to go ahead, so as things stand it’s unlikely that they will be affected by the second lockdown.

More like this: how to make sure next year’s GCSE, AS and A-level exams are fair?

student walking outside carrying books and wearing a face mask

Will universities stay open?

Yes – although the government guidance on the new restrictions said that “universities and adult education settings should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible”.

At the start of the new academic year in September, most universities in England were offering a mixture of online learning and face-to-face teaching.

And now university leaders are calling for all teaching to be moved online where possible.

“Universities must not risk the health and safety of staff and students by allowing non-essential in-person activities to continue,” commented Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU).

“Reducing the amount of in-person teaching and travel to and from campus will minimise the spread of Covid-19 and keep people as safe as possible,” Grady finished.  

But although the guidance has advised increased levels of online learning, the government has not told universities that they need to close. This means that the detail of how courses are taught will depend on the individual universities.

More like this: how to make the most of your study space for online learning at university

Can university students travel home for lockdown if classes are moved online?

University students in England have been advised not to move back home for lockdown, even if all their teaching does go online.

The government has issued guidance for students on the second lockdown, which states: "Under the new national restrictions from 5 November, the government will be requiring everyone to stay at their current home, except for specific purposes. This means students should not leave their term-time address to return home between 5 November and 2 December."

The national restrictions guidance states that: “You should only return home at the end of term for Christmas.” 

More government advice for university students during lockdown can be found on the government website.

A letter to students from the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, said that “for everyone under the new national restrictions from 5 November, you should stay in your current home”.

“This means you should not leave your term-time address to return to your parents’ or carer’s home until at least 2 December – and should continue to learn at university for the remainder of this term,” the letter continued.

Students are being asked to stay where they are and not travel ahead of the lockdown starting on Thursday 5 November to “prevent any further spread of Covid-19,” the letter explained.

The National Union of Students (NUS), however, has called for students to be allowed to “travel home safely before lockdown starts” as many will want the “support network” of their family.

Will university students be able to go home for Christmas?

University students in England should head home for Christmas at some point between 3 December and 9 December 2021, the government has said.

In-person teaching will have ended by 9 December, to make sure that students are able to travel in that period.

This travel window will come just after the end of the latest four-week lockdown on 2 December, when the risk of Covid-19 spreading should be at its lowest.

Covid-19 tests will be “offered to as many students as possible before they travel home,” particularly those studying in areas with high rates of coronavirus, the DfE has said.

The DfE has published more detailed guidance on travelling home over Christmas for students here.

If you're considering university, join one of TSR's application surgeries to help you make informed decisions about your education choices and university applications.

We'll be chatting to university admissions experts throughout November to answer your questions and help you to understand what your next step could be and what you need to do to get there!

Join the surgeries live at 5pm every Thursday throughout November or catch later up on the site.

Ask a question in the Educational debate forum
Your question will be posted in the Educational debate forum
Awesome! Your question has now been posted. View your post here
  1. Please choose where you want to post your question.
    Please choose your study level.
    Please enter what your question is about.
    Please enter your question.
    Your message must have two characters or more.
People are talking about this article Have your say