Ministers threaten to use emergency legal powers to force schools to stay open

The Government could use emergency legal powers to force schools to stay open after council leaders urged them to close early and move to online learning before the Christmas break.

Schools in the capital that switch to remote learning before the end of term may face an intervention by the Education Secretary.

The warning comes after council leaders in Waltham Forest, Islington and Greenwich advised schools to shut to the majority of pupils and move to online learning amid a rise in Covid-19 cases.

The regional schools commissioner (RSC) for the South East and south London, who acts on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education, has written to Greenwich council urging it to rethink its position.

The letter highlights 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.

“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,” the letter from the RSC adds.

Downing Street said it expects schools and colleges in England to remain open until the end of term on Thursday.

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

The plea came after London mayor Sadiq Khan called on the Government to consider closing all secondary schools and colleges in London early and reopen later in January due to coronavirus.

In Basildon in Essex, eight out of nine secondary schools have already moved to full remote education.

On Monday, Waltham Forest became the third council in the capital to advise schools to move to online learning and only remain open for key workers and vulnerable children.

It came after Islington Council called for schools evening – except for children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – and not to reopen until January 11.

Schools in Greenwich, south-east London, were advised by their council to close from Monday night and switch to remote learning.

The Department for Education (DfE) has written to all Greenwich and Islington schools in light of the statements from the councils.

Last week, schools in England were told they could take an inset day on Friday so staff could have a “proper break” from identifying potential Covid-19 cases.

But heads 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.

Schools have been warned they could face legal action if they allow pupils to learn remotely in the run-up to Christmas.

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

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We deplore the use of legal threats and bullying letters that we have seen from the DfE.

“Publicly, ministers express their thanks to school leaders, whilst behind the scenes they are sending intimidating and unnecessary legal letters. We object to these double standards in the strongest terms.

“Schools which are using their local knowledge and expertise to provide the highest quality education and care for their pupils should not be threatened by legal action for using sensible flexibilities to manage their way through to the end of term.

“The Government’s lack of support for schools throughout the pandemic has been staggering, and they should be ashamed of this latest tactic.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), has urged other councils to “take the same decision” as Greenwich Council and move to remote education.

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.”

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.”