Secondary schools are to be given the "discretion" to require pupils and staff to wear face coverings in corridors and other communal areas, new government guidance says.

And in areas where "local lockdown" measures are in place, face masks will become mandatory for pupils in Year 7 and above and adults, the guidance says.

The policy U-turn comes after ministers were put under increasing pressure from headteachers. The guidance, which applies to independent schools, had not previously recommended the use of facemasks in schools.

The guidance reads: "Schools and colleges will have the discretion to require face coverings in communal areas where social distancing cannot be safely managed, if they believe that it is right in their particular circumstances."

Face coverings "will not generally be necessary" in the classroom even where social distancing is not possible, the guidance adds.

The move represents another significant U-turn for ministers who recently ditched a controversial algorithm that moderated students’ centre assessed grades at GCSE and A-Level.

Scotland, where schools returned in early August, will require secondary students wear face coverings in corridors and communal areas from Monday.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, told the TES: "This was probably inevitable following the announcement that it had been mandated by the Scottish government and following the advice from the World Health Organisation on the need for masks.

"What would be nice, though, is if on major changes like this we didn't first of all have denial and then a U-turn from the Department for Education, which creates needless uncertainty and further reinforces the impression that they are all over the place."

Some school leaders have spoken out against masks in schools. Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School in North London, called the policy "madness".

England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, has said the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools was “not strong”.