Education Secretary Gavin Williamson orders London schools to stay OPEN

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has ordered London school to stay open after Labour-led Greenwich council told local classes to move online from tomorrow. 

Tonight Mr Williamson issued a temporary continuity direction to Greenwich council, the Department for Education confirmed. 

Should the south east London council ignore the letter, Mr Williamson will be able to enforce the direction through a High Court injunction.

Islington council, which made a similar request to schools today, has not received a letter from the Department from Education as yet, but the DfE said the Regional Schools Commissioner had spoken with the local authority. 

Speaking tonight, the Education Secretary said: ‘It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors.’

Schools look set to remain closed first thing tomorrow morning, as Greenwich council’s leader Danny Thorpe said: ‘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.’

Gavin Williamson has written a temporary continuity direction letter to Greenwich council ordering them to keep schools open for the rest of the week. Should it go ignored, the Education Secretary will be able to enforce the direction via the High Court

Gavin Williamson has written a temporary continuity direction letter to Greenwich council ordering them to keep schools open for the rest of the week. Should it go ignored, the Education Secretary will be able to enforce the direction via the High Court

Gavin Williamson has written a temporary continuity direction letter to Greenwich council ordering them to keep schools open for the rest of the week. Should it go ignored, the Education Secretary will be able to enforce the direction via the High Court

‘Schools and colleges up and down the country in all tiers have shown incredible resilience in the face of this pandemic – and it’s down to the hard work of teachers and staff that millions of children and young people have been able to benefit from a face-to-face education and be with their friends.

‘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.’

Downing Street has said it expects schools and colleges to remain fully open until the end of Thursday. 

Yesterday Danny Thorpe, leader of Greenwich council, sent a letter to headteachers across the borough,  warning the local Covid-19 situation was ‘escalating extremely quickly,’ as it saw its highest Covid-19 infection rate since March.

Matt Hancock announced today that London would move into Tier 3 restrictions, as infection rates continued to climb across the capital.

But with just a few days left before schools break up for half term, the Government is determined to keep pupils in class for the rest of the week. 

In Basildon in Essex, nearly all the secondary schools have moved to full remote education.

London mayor Sadiq Khan had called on the Government to consider closing all secondary schools and colleges in London early and reopen later in January due to ‘outbreaks’ among 10 to 19-year-olds.

But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘We’ve consistently said that not being in school has a detrimental impact on children’s learning as well as their own personal development and mental health.

‘Which is why we expect all schools and colleges to remain open until the end of term on Thursday, as schools have remained open throughout the pandemic.’

Asked whether action will be taken against councils that shut early, the spokesman said: ‘Our regional school commissioner teams are working closely with schools and local authorities across the country and will continue to work with them and support them to remain open.’

Prior to Mr Williamson’s direction, the regional schools commissioner who oversees Greenwich sent a letter to the council urging it to U-turn on its position.

It read: ‘As you will be aware under schedule 17 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, the Secretary of State may make a direction to require schools to enable all pupils to attend full time, other than pupils who are required to self-isolate in accordance with the schools’ opening guidance.

‘The Department would consider issuing such a direction, if needed. I would ask that you reconsider your position immediately and retract your message to schools.’

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has 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 they can leave parents in the lurch.

But Islington Council is advising schools in the north London borough to shut from Tuesday evening – except for children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – and not to reopen until January 11.

It comes after schools in Greenwich, south-east London, were advised to close from Monday night and switch to remote learning amid a rise in coronavirus cases.

Islington Council leader Richard Watts said: ‘We must all take action now to stop this deadly disease spreading serious illness and death to the people we love.’

In a statement on Monday, a spokesman for Conservative-run Essex County Council (ECC) said: ‘As of today, eight of the nine secondary schools in Basildon district are operating a full remote education offer.

’17 primary schools, out of 48 in the Basildon district, have now moved to a full remote education offer.’

But he added: ‘No school is closed, all the schools are offering a full or partial remote education offer.’

Sir Keir told his LBC radio phone-in: ‘I’m very reluctant to close our schools down. I’m worried about closing schools early but equally I can see council leaders are put in a difficult situation now.’

Asked what he would say to the London mayor, the Labour leader said: ‘Talk to the Health Secretary about what we can do this week to keep schools open, try to keep them open this week.’

Schools in England have been told that they can take an inset day on Friday so staff can have a ‘proper break’ from identifying potential Covid-19 cases.

But headteachers have been calling for more flexibility to end in-person teaching earlier to reduce the risk of pupils and staff having to isolate over Christmas.

New powers introduced through the Coronavirus Act allow the Government to issue ‘directions’ to heads around education provision during the pandemic.

But, should schools fail to comply with directions to remain open, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson could apply for a High Court injunction forcing them to do so.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), has urged other councils to ‘take the same decision’ as Greenwich Council.

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.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ‘It is deeply unfair on school leaders, teachers, families and pupils that they are caught between the heavy-handed approach of central government and increasing alarm at local infection rates.’

He added: ‘Although it is now incredibly late in the day, the Government must remove the threat of legal action and allow schools to make the decisions they need to make on behalf of their staff and children.

‘In the future, it must allow for more nuanced responses to local infection rates and the huge disruption affecting many schools rather than insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach.’

A DfE spokeswoman said: ‘It is a national priority to keep education settings open full time and it is vital that children remain in school until the end of the term.

‘Schools, colleges and early years settings across the country have worked tremendously hard to put protective measures in place that are helping reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted and our regional school commissioner teams continue to support local authorities and school trusts to remain open and help resolve any operational issues.’

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