London council leaders urge Gavin Williamson to reverse schools opening decision

31 December 2020, 20:48

Leaders of eight London boroughs have written to Gavin Williamson formally asking him to reverse the decision to reopen primary schools
Leaders of eight London boroughs have written to Gavin Williamson formally asking him to reverse the decision to reopen primary schools. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Leaders of eight London boroughs have written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson formally asking him to reverse the decision to reopen primary schools in selected areas.

In the letter the leaders said they were "struggling to understand the rationale" behind a move that ignored "the interconnectedness of our city".

They pointed out that Covid-19 infection rates were higher in some boroughs told to reopen schools than in others where schools will remain shut.

In their letter, the council leaders also said they had received legal advice that omitting some councils from the list of areas told to take teaching online "is unlawful on a number of grounds and can be challenged in court".

The leaders of the boroughs of Islington, Camden, Hackney, Lambeth, Lewisham, Greenwich, Haringey and Harrow all signed the letter.

Schools in the City of London and Kingston will also reopen under current plans but those in 22 other London boroughs will remain closed.

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Danny Thorpe, leader of Labour-controlled Greenwich, which was threatened with legal action by the Government before Christmas after issuing advice to schools to move to online learning for the last few days of term, said: "In a case-by-case comparison, there appears to be no logic to how this list was brought together."

He pointed out that Tory-controlled Kensington and Chelsea "has one of the lowest infection rates for the whole of the capital, yet their children and young people are being afforded the extra protection that apparently Royal Greenwich students don't need".

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said it was "nonsensical" that some primary school students were being told to return next week and revealed he had written to the Prime Minister about his anger that local leaders had not been consulted.

"This is not the way to run schools in our city or our country and it's another example of the chaotic and shambolic way that the Government has dealt with this pandemic," he said.

Many staff in boroughs where schools were reopening were concerned about their own safety with infection rates so high.

Read more: Primary, Year 11 and Year 13 pupils will return to schools next week despite Covid fears

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Kevin Courtney, joint leader of the National Education Union, said: "Gavin Williamson must listen to the leaders of the community, he must listen to school staff and he must listen to the general public who are all telling him that it is not safe to reopen schools on Monday."

Greenwich had 2,176 new cases recorded in the seven days to December 26, Hackney and City of London had 2,217 and Islington had 1,499.

In comparison, areas on the list included Kensington and Chelsea, which had 768 new cases in the same period.

On Thursday, Professor Susan Michie told LBC it is wrong to say schools are "safe" as millions of pupils face staying at home from January 4.

The member of Independent Sage and government adviser on Health Psychology told LBC's Matt Frei that "delays and last minute decisions" over whether schools would be open are "really difficult for everyone."

She said "many, many schools are unsafe" due to a lack of space for social distancing, a low teacher to student ratio and not enough hand sanitising or mask wearing.

Earlier on Thursday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told LBC's Andrew Castle that "schools are incredibly safe places."

But Prof Michie said "it is wrong to say schools are incredibly safe places."

Mr Williamson said he is "absolutely confident" there will be no further delays to school reopenings, after soaring coronavirus case rates in December forced the Government into a U-turn in pushing back the start of terms for millions of pupils.

Asked if the Government were doing enough to stop infections spreading in schools, Professor Michie said: "Well the situation isn't clear and yet again, we've got delays and last minute decisions, which is really difficult for everyone.

"Everybody wants children back at school, this is such a priority for the whole country.

"As has been said, it's good for their education, their mental health, their physical health.

"However, it is wrong to say schools are incredibly safe places.

"Some have had enough space that they have been able to make them safe, but many, many schools are unsafe.

"There isn't space for distancing, we have unregulated not enough teachers to children rations in classes - they're too big - so there's often complete chaos with people not wearing masks when they should be, there's not frequent hand sanitisers and procedures built into the day."