Ministers start legal action against schools.
The Government has doubled down on its threat to take local authorities to court over early school closures with the Education Secretary beginning legal proceedings against Greenwich council.
Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, has warned that he would seek a High Court injunction, via the emergency powers it was given under the Coronavirus Act, to override the desires of schools and force them to stay open by issuing a “temporary continuity direction”.
The move came after another four boroughs, Islington, Waltham Forest, Havering and Tower Hamlets, added their voices to the call for early closures leaving ministers in danger of losing control of schools in the capital. Downing Street has said that keeping schools open is a “national priority” but amid soaring Covid rates in the capital a number of London councils, as well as the London Mayor, are recommending that schools close early for the Christmas holidays.
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.”
He further added, “I have always been clear that using legal powers is a last resort, but continuity of education is a national priority. That is 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.”
The Government’s legal action came after the regional schools commissioner for the south east and south London, Claire Burton, wrote to Greenwich and Islington councils urging them to reverse their decisions to closes schools. Mr Williamson said, “we 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 continue to receive face-to-face education”.
The head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, warned that lockdown combined with repeated bouts of self-isolation had put children six months behind. Ms Spielman said that while remote learning was “better than nothing”, it was “no substitute” for a classroom.
The Local Government Association said teacher absences had trebled in some council areas with the demand for supply teachers resulting in authorities’ costs spiralling out of control. Chairman of the LGA’s children and young people board, Judith Blake, said, “Soaring numbers of teachers self-isolating due to coronavirus and a shortage of funds to pay for supply teachers are leading to whole year groups having to be sent home, and school closures across the country.”
Research by the LGA found that one council in the North East of England recorded a rise of 253 per cent in absent teachers, mostly for self-isolation reasons, up from 75 in mid-September to a peak of 265 in mid-November.