CLOSING schools to tackle Covid-19 puts children’s lives on hold and should be kept to an “absolute minimum”, England’s schools watchdog head believes.

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman spoke out as ministers face growing pressure to keep all schools in England closed after the Christmas holidays.

Amid a surge in Covid cases, teaching unions have told primary school staff it is unsafe to return to work.

The Government has said school closures are a “last resort” to curb infections.

Most primary schools in England are expected to open on Monday but secondary schools will reopen on a staggered basis, with exam year pupils returning on 11 January and others returning a week later.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that all of London's primaries will remain closed to most pupils, after pressure from local councils to reverse an earlier decision to keep only schools in certain boroughs closed.

It means more than one million primary school pupils will now learn from home for at least the first two weeks of term.

But by tomorrow, many more could be home learning after the UK's largest teaching union advised staff it was unsafe to work in schools and Brighton and Hove Council advised primary schools in its area to switch to remote learning.

In a letter to head teachers, seen by the BBC, the local authority said it had written to the education secretary requesting that it was named within the same framework which had led to the closure of primaries in London and parts of the south east of England.

Mr Williamson has said the closures were a "last resort and a temporary solution" to help tackle the particularly high infection rates in the capital, which has been driven by a new, fast-spreading variant of the virus.

Vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers will continue to attend school, the government said.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Ms Spielman said she welcomed, “the real consensus that schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen.”

She went on: “It is increasingly clear that children’s lives can't just be put on hold while we wait for vaccination programmes to take effect, and for waves of infection to subside.

“The longer the pandemic continues, the more true this is.”

She added that long periods of remote learning had led younger children to regress in basic skills, with some forgetting how to hold a pencil or use a knife and fork.

For older children forced to spend time away from school, Ms Spielman said Ofsted had observed increases in eating disorders and self-harm.

“For all these reasons, we must renew and maintain the consensus that children's time out of school should be kept to the absolute minimum,” she said.

Head teachers in Wales as well as England have begun legal action to force ministers to reveal data behind the decision for some schools to reopen.

The Department for Education said its decisions were based on new infections and the pressure on the NHS in local areas.

Three of the worst-hit English local authorities have not been told to delay the opening of primaries.

Rushmoor (817 cases per 100,000 people in the week to 28 December), Slough (777) and Spelthorne (721) are all in the south-east of England and subject to the strictest tier of coronavirus rules, Tier 4.

Secondary schools in England will stagger their return with pupils taking exams in 2021, starting on Monday January 11, and other year groups returning in person a week later.

Most primary schools in England will return on January 4, but in London and some surrounding areas they will not open for most pupils until January 18.

In Wales, local councils have been told they can be “flexible” as to when they open, with many schools aiming to return for face-to-face lessons from January 11.

In Northern Ireland, primary school pupils will be taught online until January 11.

In secondary schools, years 8 to 11 will be taught online throughout January. Years 12 to 14 will return to school after the first week of January.

In Scotland, the Christmas holidays have been extended to 11 January, and the following week will be online learning only.

A full return to face-to-face learning is planned for January 18.