Covid: DfE legal threat to schools an 'insult' to heads

Union leaders speak out after reports the government is willing to seek High Court injunctions to stop schools closing early despite Covid concerns
12th December 2020, 5:14pm
John Roberts

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Covid: DfE legal threat to schools an 'insult' to heads

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/covid-dfe-legal-threat-schools-insult-heads
Headteachers Unions Have Spoken Out After It Emerged The Dfe Has Sent A Letter Threatening To Direct A School To Stay Open.

School leadership unions have criticised the Department for Education (DfE) for "threatening legal action" against schools who had plans to switch to remote learning for the last week of term over Covid concerns.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the NAHT school leaders' union have spoken out after a school was sent a "minded to direct" letter from schools minister Nick Gibb warning emergency powers could be used in order to keep it open.


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As Tes has previously reported, the Coronavirus Act gives the education secretary the power to direct a school to stay open.

Last month, the DfE highlighted that it could use this power when it got the Focus Trust to abandon its plans to close its 15 schools in the North of England a week early for Christmas.

Today it has been reported in The Daily Telegraph that senior sources at the DfE have warned schools and councils it would be prepared to apply for High Court injunctions to force them to stay open if they failed to comply with a direction to do so.

It comes as a headteacher in Ware, Hertfordshire, was sent a letter from schools minister Nick Gibb warning that the emergency powers could be used to keep its doors open.

Presdales School had planned to switch to online learning in the final week but has now ditched this plan.

It is understood the DfE has not yet used its powers under the Coronavirus Act to direct a school to stay open.

'It is an outrageous insult to the effort of school leaders'

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: "Using the threat of legal powers to restrict school leader flexibilities is working against the continuity and quality of education. It is also an outrageous insult to the effort of school leaders.

"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."

Mr Whiteman also accused the department of attempting to bully a school by saying it would name and shame it in the local media over its plans to close school doors early.

1/ @PaulWhiteman6 says: "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...

- NAHT (@NAHTnews) December 12, 2020

Meanwhile, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said: "It marks a low moment when a government threatens legal action against its own school and college leaders, all of whom have worked tirelessly throughout this crisis to make sense of last-minute and chaotic decisions from Westminster.

"The government's approach undermines the much-vaunted trust it once said it had for leaders and governors in their communities to make the right decisions on behalf of their pupils, parents and staff."

The DfE would not confirm whether it had sent a minded to direct letter to Presdales School but sources with knowledge of the letter have confirmed the details to Tes.

The DfE did, however, confirm that under the Coronavirus Act, the education secretary can deploy powers to make a temporary continuity direction to require a school to enable all pupils to attend full-time. 

A DfE spokesperson 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."

In Wales, secondary schools and colleges will move to online learning from Monday following advice from the Welsh chief medical officer that the public health situation in the country is "deteriorating".

The government has announced plans to carry out rapid Covid testing of all secondary school pupils in parts of London, Essex and Kent because of concerns about coronavirus rates among pupils in that age group.

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