Exclusive: More heads face legal threat over closures

Minister 'deeply disappointed' by 'unilateral' action taken by Waltham Forest and Islington on Covid school closures
15th December 2020, 4:47pm
Amy Gibbons

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Exclusive: More heads face legal threat over closures

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/exclusive-more-heads-face-legal-threat-over-closures
Coronavirus: Schools Minister Nick Gibb Has Written To Headteachers Warning About The Potential Consequences Of School Closures

The schools minister has written directly to headteachers under two more councils threatening them with legal action if they choose to close schools before the end of term.

In a letter to headteachers in Waltham Forest and Islington, seen by Tes, Nick Gibb said he was "deeply disappointed and concerned" by the London boroughs' blanket call for schools to move to online learning in the last week of term before Christmas.

Waltham Forest and Islington were two of three Labour-run local authorities that advised schools to close to the majority of pupils in the last week of term. The other was Greenwich council.


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The leader of Greenwich council said today that he had "no choice" but to ask all schools to stay open until the end of term, following a legal order from the Department for Education.

The DfE said regional schools commissioners had also issued letters to Waltham Forest and Islington councils, asking them to reconsider advising schools to move to remote learning. No legal direction has been issued to either council at this stage.

Coronavirus: Warning over school closures

But Mr Gibb has separately written to school leaders in Waltham Forest and Islington directly, threatening them with legal action under the Coronavirus Act 2020, which states that the secretary of state may make a direction to require schools to enable all pupils to attend full time.

"We will consider using these powers in this instance," he wrote.

In a letter to parents, seen by Tes, a Waltham Forest primary head said: "As a headteacher, serving my school community, I find myself in a difficult situation regarding the advice we have received from the local authority.

"After careful consideration, the chair of governors and I have decided that we must continue to follow the law and therefore keep our school open unless directed by the government or the RSC or unless the levels of infection in [redacted school name] rise to a point where the local authority instruct us to close."

Mr Gibb's letter in full is as follows:

Dear Colleagues,

I know that you will have received a letter from Waltham Forest Council to all schools yesterday, recommending them to move to remote learning from today, apart from provision for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers.  

I am deeply disappointed and concerned by the unilateral stance that Waltham Forest Council has taken and its potentially serious impact on schools, parents and children, not just in Waltham Forest but also in surrounding authorities. The government has made clear its commitment that education and childcare settings should continue to remain open to all children during the Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak and we have prioritised education even in areas of high and very high transmission throughout this term.  

I would like to restate here my appreciation for the efforts of school leaders, teachers and school support staff across Waltham Forest for all that you continue to do to provide full time, face-to-face provision for all pupils during these increasingly challenging times. Your commitment and dedication to ensuring that children get the best education experience possible in the circumstances is inspiring. I know how hard everybody has worked this term to give children the best possible experience in highly challenging circumstances and I would ask that you continue to allow all children to attend for these last few days of term. Children have faced a year of extreme disruption already, there will be groups preparing for examinations, and I believe that every day that they are in school is vitally important.  

I am acutely aware of the increasing Covid-19 incidence rates in the region and the levels of anxiety and uncertainty in schools and the wider community. 

My officials and I regularly review regional data alongside the Joint Biosecurity Centre and Public Health England in the region to ensure that we have all the  available evidence. The latest advice from both the regional director of Public Health England and the deputy chief medical officer is that we are not in a position where the scientific and public health advice supports implementation of measures to restrict access to schools for children in Waltham Forest.  

We have seen how across the country many areas with much higher transmission rates than those in Waltham Forest have kept schools open, working closely with our regional teams and accessing support through this route. My teams are ready to answer questions and help you if required.  

I believe there is no place in our response to this pandemic for unilateral action such as Waltham Forest Council has taken and we must keep schools open for face to face education. Under Schedule 17 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, the secretary of state may make a direction to require schools to enable all pupils to attend full time. We will consider using these powers in this instance.  

I would appreciate you confirming directly with your school community your intention to allow all pupils to attend for face-to-face education from tomorrow through to the last scheduled teaching day of term, to ensure no families mistakenly believe their school to be closed. 

With best wishes. 

Yours sincerely,  

Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, minister of state for school standards 

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