Keeping every London primary school closed a ‘last resort’, says Williamson

All London primary schools will remain shut next week, the Education Secretary has confirmed, as the capital battles with high levels of coronavirus infections.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the U-turn after previously expressing dismay at the “ridiculous” Government decision to order some pupils in the capital to return to their classrooms next week despite the city being in the grip of a fresh wave of Covid transmissions.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the decision to close all London primary schools had been a “last resort”.

Mr Khan said: “It is good news that the Government has finally seen sense and announced this U-turn.

“The Government’s original decision was ridiculous and has been causing immense confusion for parents, teachers and staff across the capital.

“It is right that all schools in London are treated the same, and that no primary schools in London will be forced to open on Monday.

“I would like to thank Nick Gibb, the education minister, for engaging with me in constructive conversations over the past two days.

“No one wants our children out of schools longer than necessary. Everybody must now focus on bearing down on the virus so that our schools can reopen safely as soon as possible.”

The move is expected to see similar arrangements to the spring lockdown when schools continued to accept children from key worker families but moved to online learning for the vast majority of pupils.

Under the Government’s initial plan, secondary schools and colleges were set to be closed to most pupils for the first two weeks of January, while primary schools within 50 local authorities in London and the south of England were also told to keep their doors shut.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has welcomed the decision to keep schools shut
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has welcomed the decision to keep schools shut (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

But in a reversal of those primary school proposals, Cabinet minister Mr Williamson said: “Moving further parts of London to remote education really is a last resort and a temporary solution.

“As infection rates rise across the country, and particularly in London, we must make this move to protect our country and the NHS.

“We will continue keep the list of local authorities under review, and reopen classrooms as soon as we possibly can.”

Leaders of eight London boroughs had written to the Education Secretary formally asking him to reverse the decision to reopen primary schools in selected areas.

They pointed out that some local authority areas on the closure list had lower infection rates than those where schools had been told to reopen.

The Leaders of the London boroughs where primary schools have been asked to return on Monday have written to Gavin Williamson formally asking him to reverse this decision, which isn’t supported by the evidence.

— Richard Watts #STAYSAFE (@RichardWatts01) December 31, 2020

According to Covid rates compiled by the PA news agency, Greenwich – which was not on the closure list – had 2,176 new cases recorded in the seven days to December 26 compared to list-featuring Kensington and Chelsea’s 768 new cases in the same period.

The leaders of the boroughs of Islington, Camden, Hackney, Lambeth, Lewisham, Greenwich, Haringey and Harrow all signed the letter.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the last-minute nature of the London schools decision had caused “huge stress” for pupils, families and staff, with only a matter of days to go before the new term was due to commence.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the announcement affecting London should apply to the rest of the country as well.

“What is right for London is right for the rest of the country,” she said.

“With the highest level of Covid-19 infection, and hospitals buckling under the tsunami of very ill patients, it is time for ministers to do their duty – to protect the NHS by following Sage advice and close all primary and secondary schools to reduce the R rate below 1.

“It is time for the Government to protect its citizens, and in particular its children, by shutting all primary schools for two weeks in order for the situation to be properly assessed, schools made much safer and children and their families protected.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The Government cannot expect to command public confidence with such a confusing and last-minute approach.”

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