Greenwich Council Ordered to Keep Schools Open

The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has written to Greenwich Council threatening legal action should they refuse to keep schools open and cancel their plans for online learning. The Council had planned to move classes online for most students so as to reduce the risk of staff or pupils having to self isolate on Christmas Day. The move has been criticized given the letter was sent shortly before 5pm the evening before lessons are due to go online.

In the letter sent out on Sunday, Greenwich Council Leader Danny Thorpe asked all schools to move the majority of pupils to remote learning saying in two letters:

“I wouldn’t be asking for this unless the risk was extreme, but with numbers rising so rapidly it is clear action is needed”

He went onto say that schools must remain open for children of key workers and for vulnerable children. This came the night before it was announced London would be moving to Tier 3 restrictions due to a new strain of COVID-19 causing a rapid increase in cases in the South East of England.

The National Education Union has signalled their support for the move by describing it as “very sensible” with their General Secretary adding;

“Local government is having to step in because central government is ignoring its responsibilities”

Following the letters being sent out to parents and teachers, the regional schools commissioner, who acts on behalf of the Education Secretary, wrote 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.

Government Issue Legal Threat

Shortly before 5pm on Monday evening, Greenwich Council received a letter from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson demanding that they reverse their decision to move lessons online.

Mr Williamson said:

“It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors.

“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.

“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.”

Should the Council fail to adhere to Mr Williamson’s direction, The Coronavirus Act which was fast tracked through Parliament allows the Government to apply to the High Court, without notice, requesting an injunction to force local authorities or separate schools to adhere to their directions.

Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Cllr Danny Thorpe, said:

“Yesterday we asked all schools in the Royal Borough of Greenwich to move to online learning for most pupils, but keep premises open for the children of key workers, vulnerable children and those with special educational needs.

“Other boroughs have asked schools to take similar measures, and the Mayor of London has also called for all secondary schools to close, with an extra week off in January to enable testing.

“Our request was based on information from Public Health England and supported by the Council’s Public Health team.

“In the Royal Borough of Greenwich, we currently have the highest rates of Covid-19 since March, with numbers doubling every four days.”Our seven-day infection rate for the borough is now 59% higher than at the same point last week.

“Infection rates are particularly high amongst young people, with 817 children of school age testing positive for Covid-19.

“4,262 children and 362 staff are self-isolating – that’s an increase of 640 people since Friday.

“In many cases, other members of the child’s household have also tested positive, impacting entire families.

“Schools across the borough have now organised online learning from tomorrow, whilst others are opening their premises to all pupils.”

Mr Thorpe then went on to address the last minute letter from the Education Secretary by saying:

“This evening we received a legal direction from the Government to withdraw our request to schools,” he said.

“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.”

This move by the Government has dismayed some given that schools are already due to close for the Christmas Holidays on Friday. When you add in that COVID-19 cases in London are rising at an alarming rate, it is questionable as to whether the strong arm tactics by Mr Williamson are really necessary. Especially given that the reasoning for continuing education doesn’t hold as much weight in the last week of school before Christmas as it would midterm.

Parents who have arranged childcare for today onwards, will now be left waiting to find out if it wasn’t necessary at all. Others will be worrying about whether they’ll need to self isolate over Christmas should they get the dreaded call that a close contact of their child has COVID-19.

Teachers and the Government have been locked in a battle since September arguing over who’s better placed to make the decision to close schools. Three months on and we’re none the wiser.

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