DfE's school Covid confrontation 'entirely avoidable'

Council leader at the heart of row over moving schools online says he found the DfE's legal threat difficult to believe
21st December 2020, 6:45pm
John Roberts


DfE's school Covid confrontation 'entirely avoidable'

Coronavirus: A Council Leader At The Heart Of A Legal Row With The Dfe Over Moving Schools Online Said The Confrontation Was Entirely Avoidable

A council leader whose authority was given a legal direction by the Department for Education to abandon plans to asks schools to move online over Covid concerns has said the confrontation was "entirely avoidable".

In a new account of the affair, Greenwich council leader Danny Thorpe said he found it difficult to believe that the government had threatened legal action over its request to move pupils' education online and he criticised the DfE for sending ministerial letters directly to schools, which he said had caused headteachers "distress".

He also said that it was depressing that nine months into the pandemic, the national government still did not trust local government to do the right thing, adding: "When they bypass us, they get it wrong." 

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"It is deeply regrettable that rather than collaborate with school leaders and councils in this most difficult term, the government entered into an entirely avoidable confrontation," Mr Thorpe, a qualified teacher, said.

Coronavirus: The legal row over keeping schools open

"Both the local data and the 'feel' of what was happening on the ground would have been very different from the perception in Whitehall."

Greenwich council was at the centre of a legal and political row after it announced last Sunday that it was asking schools to move online for the last week of term because of concerns about an exponential rise in Covid cases in the area.

The request was controversial as it contradicted the DfE's policy aim of keeping all schools open during the Covid pandemic.

The next day letters from schools standards minister Nick Gibb raising the prospect of legal action were sent directly to Greenwich schools.

"Understandably, school leaders were distressed and the tone of the letter left a lot to be desired, Mr Thorpe said.

Then last Monday afternoon education secretary Gavin Williamson issued a direction on the council ordering it remove letters to schools and parents which said schools were being asked to move online.

Just three days later, the DfE announced its own plans for most secondary school year groups to start next term online in January as the government seeks to roll-out mass Covid testing of students and staff.

Greenwich council complied with the legal direction and withdrew its request for schools to move online. Mr Thorpe said he has apologised to schools in the borough after they were caught up in this.

The DfE also made similar threats of legal action in Islington and Waltham Forest in response to the prospect of schools in these areas moving online at the end of term.

Mr Thorpe has described how the decision to ask schools to move online had come after mounting concerns about Covid rates in the area.

He said: "On Sunday...it was clear that there were signs that the virus was growing exponentially in Greenwich, the kind of growth that demanded immediate action.

"We had the highest recorded rates of any time since March, and with the increasing numbers of children self-isolating and feedback from headteachers, I talked to my team about actions that we could take that were based on the best interests of children and families in Greenwich."

Mr Thorpe has also commented on the DfE's own last-minute plan for most secondary school year groups to begin the first week of term online next year as it launches a major testing programme.

He said: "Nick Gibb said on Friday: 'This is a fast-moving pandemic, we have to take action at pace.'

"Rather ironic given that on Monday, it was the same minister who had threatened us with court action for trying to do exactly this."

Mr Thorpe added: "It was shocking, though perhaps not surprising, that the government announced on the last day of term that they were delaying the start of the January term for secondary school students, and that alongside their obligations to support the test and trace service, headteachers and senior leaders would now be spending the best part of the festivities trying to work out what on earth these means for them and their schools."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "As the education secretary has outlined, the path of the pandemic is changing and so we must act now. That is why our huge expansion of rapid testing will support secondary schools to stay open to all pupils and reduce the risk of transmission within local communities.

"The chief medical officer has been consistently clear about the importance of children being in school for their mental health, wellbeing and development. As such, it is important for all pupils to return to school full-time where possible.

"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 the department will continue to support local authorities and schools to open and remain open next term."


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