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Dissent in Tory ranks over demand for schools to stay open as government threatens councils with legal action

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Boris Johnson has sparked dissent in Tory ranks by issuing a demand for all schools to remain open until the official start of the Christmas break on Thursday, as the government took steps towards legal action to prevent classrooms closing three early.

The order came as councils in London switched to remote learning amid soaring coronavirus rates in the capital, with Islington advising schools to shut and Greenwich saying headteachers should move to online classes from Monday evening. Waltham Forest has also recommended schools move teaching online as soon as possible.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, issued a “temporary continuity direction” to the London Borough of Greenwich on Monday evening to demand it withdraw its letter recommending the switch to online learning.

“It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors,” he said, adding that the government would seek a court order if the council refused to comply.

“This evening we received a legal direction from the government to withdraw our request to schools,” Danny Thorpe, the leader Greenwich council, said. “We are in the process of seeking legal advice and will respond to the government in the morning.”

Earlier in the day, Stephen Hammond, the Conservative MP for Wimbledon, rejected the No 10 demand for schools to stay open, saying those in his southwest London constituency should have closed last Friday and should consider two weeks of online learning after Christmas.

Mr Hammond was among a group of London MPs briefed by ministers and officials on Monday morning about the situation in the capital, which he described as “stark”.

“Frankly, the government should not be stopping schools closing,” Mr Hammond told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.

“I have been of the view for at least a week now, looking at my local area, that schools should have been closed last Friday. With only three days left till the end of the term, we should make that decision today.

 

“It’s not just what’s happening in schools but it’s the congregation of parents of primary schools and congregation of pupils outside afterwards. I also think that we should think very carefully about how quickly they should open after Christmas and potentially two weeks of online learning.”

But Downing Street said on Monday that all schools were expected to stay open until the end of term.

“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,” Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson said. “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.”

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, wrote to schools on Monday setting out the reasons for keeping schools open, as well as how and when individual schools should close for medical reasons.

Headteachers have been calling for more flexibility to end in-person teaching earlier over fears staff and students could be told to self-isolate over Christmas.

Teacher Terence O’Mara, who lives in north London but whose family are in Ireland, told The Independent he was happy his school moved teaching online for the final week of term, after a positive case sent some teachers and a group of students into self-isolation last week. “Now that I can teach virtually it reduces any possibility that I would have to isolate over Christmas and not be allowed to get back home for a few days,” he said.

The government has introduced mass coronavirus testing for secondary school students in areas of London, Essex and Kent amid rising coronavirus rates in the run-up to the festive season. However, education unions have raised doubts over whether schools affected by these plans should stay fully open before breaking up this week.

On Sunday, Greenwich Council told all schools in its area to close from Monday and switch to online learning following signs of “exponential growth” in Covid-19 cases.

The National Education Union said it “strongly” welcomes the move by the borough in southeast London, and urged other councils to follow.

The Independent understands the regional schools commissioner who oversees Greenwich sent a letter to the council urging the local authority to rethink its position.

On Monday evening, the UK education secretary issued the borough with the temporary continuity direction – which states it is enforceable by Mr Williamson making an application to the High Court or the county court for an injunction if the council does not comply.

“Given we received this notification just before 5pm,” council leader Danny Thorpe said, “it was impossible to ask schools to change any of the arrangements they have in place for Tuesday.”

New powers introduced through the Coronavirus Act allow the government to issue “directions” around education provision during the pandemic.

Islington Council joined Greenwich in advising schools to shut early ahead of Christmas – except for children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – and not to reopen until later in January.

“This is a very difficult decision. However, the public health situation in Islington and London is so serious that we have to do everything we can to stop this deadly virus spreading in our community and across London,” said Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council.

Waltham Forest Council said on Monday afternoon it was recommending schools move teaching online and remain open only for vulnerable children and those of key workers.

“Waltham Forest now has some of the highest rates of Covid-19 anywhere in the country,” Clare Coghill, the council’s leader, said. “In the last seven days alone, 1,125 people have tested positive.”

She said it was a “critical time” and “decisive action” was needed to control the spread of Covid-19 in the area.

Meanwhile, nearly all the secondary schools in Basildon have moved to full remote education, Essex County Council said on Monday.

“We now have a chaotic situation in which Greenwich Council has asked schools to close for classroom teaching from tonight, the mayor of London has suggested the early closure of secondary schools, and the government is threatening schools with legal action if they decide to move to remote learning for the last few days of term,” Geoff Barton from the Association for Schools and College Leaders 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 said his union has “repeatedly called on the government to give schools the flexibility” to push teaching online in the last week before the Christmas holidays “based on the fact that they best know the circumstances they are facing”.

Chris Dyson, a headteacher in Leeds, said he was “happy” to keep his school open given his local area’s coronavirus rate. “The person best placed to make that decision is me – on the shop floor,” he added.

Alex Rawlings, a primary headteacher in the West Midlands, agreed, saying: “I think school leaders are best placed to judge the needs of their community.”

Andy Byers, a headteacher in Durham, said Year 7 and Year 8 are learning remotely this week at his school after an increase in cases. Across all years, more than 200 students are self-isolating anyway, with these year groups the most affected, he told The Independent.

“I would have liked the ability to move all learning remotely if I deemed it necessary,” he said.

A Department for Education spokesperson 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.”

They added: “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.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

Dissent in Tory ranks over demand for schools to stay open as government threatens councils with legal action

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