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All primary schools in London are to close for the start of the new term after the government bowed to protests and legal pressure from the capital’s local authorities.
The U-turn came after the government initially named 50 education authorities in the south of England, including many of those in and around London, where primary schools would be closed to most pupils for the first two weeks of term.
But the list omitted several London areas where Covid-19 transmission rates remain high including the borough of Haringey, whose leaders said they were prepared to defy the government and support any schools that decided to close to protect staff and pupils.
The protests from local authority leaders came to a head with a letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, from nine London authorities asking for their primary schools to be closed to all except vulnerable children and those whose parents were key workers.
The action provoked an emergency Cabinet Office meeting on New Year’s Day, which signed off on the revision, adding the remaining 10 London education authorities to the government’s “contingency areas”.
Richard Watts, the leader of Islington council, said: “I’m very relieved to hear this news. There was enormous concern from parents and schools who couldn’t understand the rationale for why some boroughs were excluded.
“We welcome that the government has, belatedly, listened to local areas. We will be working with our schools to ensure they offer high quality online learning and can welcome pupils back as soon as Public Health deem it to be sensible.”
The Department for Education (DfE) confirmed the move in a statement: “In light of Covid case rates rising rapidly across the capital and ongoing engagement with London leaders and the evidence submitted, the government has reviewed the London boroughs where the contingency framework will apply, with all further boroughs added.”
Pupils not eligible to attend in person will be provided with remote learning by their schools. Early years settings will remain open, as will alternative provision and special schools, the DfE said.
“We must make this move to protect our country and the NHS. We will continue keep the list of local authorities under review, and reopen classrooms as soon as we possibly can,” Williamson said.
The move means schools in Camden, the City of London, Greenwich, Hackney, Haringey, Harrow, Islington, Kingston-upon-Thames, Lambeth and Lewisham will be closed to most pupils from Monday until at least 18 January.
After the move was revealed by the Guardian, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, welcomed the news saying it would mean all the capital’s primary schools would be treated the same.
But the decision leaves question marks over the government’s decision-making, and stands as a further humiliating reverse for Williamson during his tenure as education secretary.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “There is no clear rationale for why some schools are being closed and others are not and why primaries and special schools are being treated differently to secondaries.
“The government appears to be following neither the science nor the advice of education professionals on how best to preserve the quality of education for young people. The government cannot expect to command public confidence with such a confusing and last-minute approach.”
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “This is yet another government U-turn creating chaos for parents just two days before the start of term.
“Gavin Williamson’s incompetent handling of the return of schools and colleges is creating huge stress for parents, pupils, and school and college staff and damaging children’s education.”
Primary school heads in London told the Guardian that they will face staff shortages in the new term because of the spread of Covid-19 and its more infectious variant.
Several local authorities had been preparing legal challenges to keep their primary schools closed.
“We are advised by leading counsel that the omissions from the list are unlawful on a number of grounds and can be challenged in court,” the letter from the nine London authorities sent to Williamson stated.
Schools in the contingency areas may remain closed after 18 January, with the Daily Telegraph quoting a senior government source: “We have been careful not to say they will definitely reopen on 18 January because we don’t know that.”
Meanwhile, the DfE faces a further rebellion from secondary school leaders in England over its demand that coronavirus testing pupils is to be mandatory from 11 January.
School leaders and teaching unions have been meeting over the new year period to discuss a response to the demand, with many secondary heads arguing that the testing regime is impractical and unworkable.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: All primary schools in London to remain closed after U-turn | Schools