Two London councils back down over school closures

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Redbridge Council in east London said it would support schools switching to online learning ahead of Christmas, as two other local authorities in the capital backed down from advising early closures.

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 London.

The leader of Greenwich Council, Cllr Danny Thorpe, said 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, 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.

In Redbridge, the Labour-run council said it would support schools in the east London borough if they decided to close and move to online learning from Wednesday.

It said its education service had written to schools on Monday offering support should they decide to close “due to staff and pupil absences making continued opening unviable” – with the exception of teaching for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

It said schools had been put under “a huge strain” as an increase of Covid-19 cases in the local area affected teaching capacity and saw children having to isolate.

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.”

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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”.

“Consequently, I have no choice but to ask our schools to keep their doors open to all students rather than just continuing with online learning.”

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

Schools in Greenwich had been told to switch to remote learning for most pupils from Monday evening in a letter sent out by Mr Thorpe on Sunday.

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.”

Another Labour-run local authority – Waltham Forest – has also advised schools to move to online learning.

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.

On Monday evening, Mr Williamson issued a temporary continuity direction to the London Borough of Greenwich demanding it withdraws letters to heads and parents which advised schools to close.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

The direction said it was enforceable by Mr Williamson making an application to the High Court or the county court for an injunction if the council did not comply by 10am on Tuesday.

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”, 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.