Education Secretary orders Greenwich schools to stay open

14 December 2020, 21:02 | Updated: 14 December 2020, 21:20

The government is urging schools to remain open
The government is urging schools to remain open. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has told schools in the south London borough of Greenwich to remain open after the local council said it planned to close early for Christmas and move to online learning.

The council had urged schools to shut from Monday evening and move to online learning for the rest of the current term due to rising Covid-19 rates in the borough.

Council leaders in Waltham Forest and Islington also advised schools to move to online learning for the last few days of term as rising Covid rates in the capital saw Health Secretary Matt Hancock announce London will move to Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday.

The Education Secretary has since issued a temporary continuity direction to the London Borough of Greenwich demanding it withdraw a letter to headteachers which requested schools switch to remote learning from Monday evening due to rising coronavirus rates in the borough.

In a statement, Gavin Williamson said: "It is simply not in children's best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors."

He added: "I have always been clear that using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority. That's why I won't hesitate to do what is right for young people and have issued a direction to Greenwich Council setting out that they must withdraw the letter issued to headteachers on Sunday.

"The Regional Schools Commissioner will continue to work closely with Greenwich Council and schools in the borough, as we have done with schools across the country, to support them with any operational challenges they face and ensure children can continue to receive face-to-face education."

The direction states it is enforceable by the Secretary of State making an application to the High Court or the county court for an injunction.

Danny Thorpe, the leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, said: "Schools across the borough have now organised online learning from tomorrow, whilst others are opening their premises to all pupils.

"This evening we received a legal direction from the Government to withdraw our request to schools. We are in the process of seeking legal advice and will respond to the Government in the morning.

"We have alerted schools, and will speak to them tomorrow. But given we received this notification just before 5pm, it was impossible to ask schools to change any of the arrangements they have in place for Tuesday."

The regional schools commissioner (RSC) for the South East and south London, who acts on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education, had already written to Greenwich council highlighting that new powers, introduced through the Coronavirus Act, allow the Secretary of State to issue "directions" to require schools to enable all pupils to attend school full-time.

Earlier on Monday, Downing Street demanded schools remain open until the end of term despite rising coronavirus cases in London.

Boris Johnson's official spokesman called on schools not to close early after those in the boroughs of Islington and Greenwich were advised to shut due to coronavirus.

Coronavirus: Will schools in England close early for Christmas?

And last week, school standards minister Nick Gibb said schools were allowed to take an inset day on Friday, ending the term a day early, so staff could a "proper break" from identifying potential coronavirus cases ahead of Christmas.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also urged leaders to try to keep schools open during the last week of term as he said closures are "difficult" for vulnerable children and can leave parents in the lurch.

In Essex, eight of the nine secondary schools in Basildon have moved to full remote education, the county council confirmed on Monday.

However, the prime minister's spokesman hit out at the decisions, saying: “We expect schools to be open to the end of term.

“Regional school commissioners will work closely with local authorities, and as you would expect the Department for Education have been working closely with schools and local authorities throughout the pandemic,” the spokesman said.

He also refused to say whether schools that chose to shut early should expect a letter from ministers or a “temporary direction of continuity”.

The spokesman repeated the government's message regarding the importance of keeping schools open to allow pupils to continue to learn and would not confirm if they would reopen as planned after the Christmas break.

“We will obviously keep the latest scientific data and information under review,” he said.“That’s what we’ve done throughout the pandemic and that’s what we’ll continue to do.

“But again I would point back to… the importance of school and the need for pupils to be able to continue to learn.”

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan asked the government to consider closing secondary schools in London for Christmas as early as tomorrow amid fears the capital will be plunged into Tier 3 this week.

Mr Khan said there had been "significant" Covid-19 outbreaks among 10 to 19-year-olds in the capital, and that government must consider asking schools and colleges to close early ahead of Christmas and reopen later in January.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said: "We deplore the use of legal threats and bullying letters that we have seen from the DfE.

"Publicly, ministers express their thanks to school leaders, whilst behind the scenes they are sending intimidating and unnecessary legal letters. We object to these double standards in the strongest terms.

"Schools which are using their local knowledge and expertise to provide the highest quality education and care for their pupils should not be threatened by legal action for using sensible flexibilities to manage their way through to the end of term.

"The Government's lack of support for schools throughout the pandemic has been staggering, and they should be ashamed of this latest tactic."

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), urged other councils to move to remote education.

He said: "The Government should have been planning for this weeks ago. They have now started to recognise the blindingly obvious fact that transmission is happening in schools and that this can spread to families. Much more is needed to control the virus in schools and to protect communities."