Row over school closures in London rumbles on amid threats of legal action

The ongoing row over schools in London has seen two councils retract advice to close early ahead of Christmas, while two other local authorities continue to support decisions to move online learning.

The Labour-run Greenwich and Islington councils rowed back on their advice for pupils to be taught online in the last few days of term amid rising Covid-19 cases in the capital.

Waltham Forest Council, also under Labour control, said schools in the North London borough had been threatened with potential legal action by the Government if they followed the council’s advice to shift learning online.

A fourth Labour-run council, Redbridge, said it would support a switch to online learning as schools faced “huge strain” due to the impact of local coronavirus cases.

The leader of Greenwich Council, Cllr Danny Thorpe, said earlier on Tuesday that he had “no choice” but to ask schools to remain open following threats of legal action from the Government.

Cllr Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council in north London, also reversed advice for local schools to move to online learning from the end of Tuesday.

He said schools should be open as usual on Wednesday and were advised they could make Thursday an inset day, with one already planned for Friday.

Redbridge Council said it would support schools in the east London borough if they moved to online learning “due to staff and pupil absences making continued opening unviable” – with the exception of teaching for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

Council leader Cllr Jas Athwal said: “Unfortunately, cases of Covid-19 continue to rise across the borough, and as a result, some of our schools are struggling to continue to provide the high-quality in-person teaching our children deserve.

“It is not the role of the council to close schools, but today we want to be absolutely clear – we will support our local schools if they choose to move to online learning.”

The council emphasised that a decision to close rests with a school itself or the Government, but it added: “The council believes that schools should now consider whether they can continue to remain open for all pupils or move to remote learning in a more planned way in light of current trends.”

Greenwich’s withdrawal of advice for schools in the south-east London borough to close comes after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told the council on Monday evening to keep schools open to all pupils until the end of term or it will face legal action.

Mr Thorpe said he “cannot agree that this is the correct choice for our schools” but also “cannot justify the use of public funds to fight the decision in the courts”.

Mr Williamson welcomed the decision as he said children’s education was a “national priority”.

Meanwhile, Mr Watts said Islington Council’s change in advice came after “discussion” with the Department for Education (DfE)

He said: “We issued this advice to schools because the situation in Islington is so serious. As Islington and London continue to face surging rates of coronavirus it’s absolutely vital we all work together and do everything we can to keep our families and loved ones safe.”

In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, Waltham Forest Council leader Cllr Clare Coghill said it was aware Minister for School Standards Nick Gibb had written to local schools “threatening legal action if they do not stay open or reopen where they have followed the advice given by us yesterday”.

She said the council had received no correspondence from Mr Gibb over the advice on Tuesday.

Cllr Coghill said the council had recommended that schools move to online learning, except for key worker and vulnerable children, after meeting with headteachers, teaching unions and the Regional Schools Commissioner on Monday.

“Following these discussions some schools have decided to move to online classes for the majority of pupils and others have not,” she added.

“We are confident that schools in Waltham Forest have made their decisions on the basis of their own individual risk assessment and with pupil safety at their heart.

“It is disappointing that, during a year when teachers, pupils and parents have made extraordinary efforts to ensure education continues through a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, the Minister has chosen to write to our schools threatening them with potential legal action.

“We will continue to do all we can to support schools to make the decisions that will safeguard the health and safety of pupils, teachers and their families and ensure children continue to be educated.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called on the Government to consider closing all secondary schools and colleges in the capital early and reopen later in January due to coronavirus.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Kate Green, shadow secretary of state for education, said it was “pretty unhelpful” for the row to have resulted in the Secretary of State issuing a legal instruction to Greenwich Council ahead of Christmas.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the Government had won a “hollow victory” in Greenwich, adding that he would not be surprised if parents kept children at home.

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

A number of independent schools – including the Prime Minister’s former school Eton College – have switched to online lessons and ended in-person teaching early amid a number of Covid-19 cases.

Downing Street defended the Government’s determination to keep state schools open ahead of the end of term despite rising coronavirus cases, saying it was in the “best interest” of all children to attend.