Council backs school closures despite DfE legal threats

Waltham Forest says it will continue to recommend to schools in the borough to move to online learning
16th December 2020, 2:09pm
Catherine Lough


Council backs school closures despite DfE legal threats
Coronavirus: The Battle Over Early Christmas School Closures

A London council has backed its schools over closures despite government threats of legal action if schools close before the end of term "in response to high rates of Covid-19" in the borough.

Waltham Forest council issued a statement last night stating it was "disappointed" that schools minister Nick Gibb had written to schools about potential legal action over early closures.

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Clare Coghill, the Labour leader of Waltham Forest Council, said: "We have been made aware that the minister for school standards, the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, has written to schools across Waltham Forest threatening legal action if they do not stay open or reopen where they have followed the advice given by us yesterday.

Coronavirus: The battle over early school closures

"We would note that, as of the issuing of this statement, we have received no correspondence from the minister today in relation to that advice."

Ms Coghill said that on Monday the council had met with headteachers, union leaders and the regional schools commissioner to discuss an appropriate response to high rates of coronavirus infections in the borough in the context of a government relaxation of restriction measures over the Christmas period.

She added that the council had written to the regional schools commissioner yesterday outlining the "detailed reasons" behind the advice for schools to close and "asking for their explanation as to why they believe that it is not necessary to take further measures to safeguard our school communities".

"Based on this, and in discussion with the headteachers best placed to understand the individual needs of their schools, yesterday we recommended to schools that they move to online learning except for key worker and vulnerable children," she said.

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

The move is the latest in a series of battles between councils and the Department for Education over whether schools should be allowed to close in areas of high infection.

The Labour-run Greenwich and Islington councils rowed back on their advice for pupils to be taught at home in the last few days of term amid rising Covid-19 cases in the capital, following threats of legal action from government.

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, councillor 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.

Councillor 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 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."

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 would 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.

"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," he said.

Yesterday Greenwich council questioned the legality of the DfE's actions, writing to Mr Williamson to express concern that the move to block closures was "arguably ultra vires [done without legal authority]."

On Monday, the education secretary issued a direction ordering the council to withdraw letters which asked schools to close their doors to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers, with lessons moving online from today.

The Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary, Geoff Barton, described issuing threatening legal letters to schools, councils and academy trusts as "disgraceful" "bully boy tactics". The government had won a "hollow victory" in Greenwich, he said, adding that he would not be surprised if parents kept children at home.

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

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.

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