A multi-academy trust has said it was told that academies have “no freedoms” to make decisions on Covid after being "directed" by the government to abandon its plans to finish term early.
Focus Trust had planned to close its 15 schools in the North West and West Yorkshire a week early for Christmas because of concerns of rising coronavirus cases in the community it serves.
It had said this was being done to safeguard staff and pupils and to “protect precious family time together”.
But it has now confirmed that it has dropped this plan after a meeting over the weekend with senior Department for Education (DfE) officials.
The DfE has told Tes that the trust was told that under the Coronavirus Act legislation, the education secretary can direct a school to stay open but that no legal direction was made.
The government’s intervention in Focus Trust’s decision has been followed by the prime minister’s new winter plan published today, which has told all schools they should not finish early this term because of Covid concerns.
A letter sent to the Focus Trust on Friday night by the regional schools commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, Vicky Beer, said that she could not support the plan for the trust’s schools to finish a week early and would be “required to escalate this to ministers who may wish to consider further action”.
As Tes reported earlier today, the DfE said Focus Trust had rescinded its decision to finish term early. This has now been confirmed by the trust.
The trust also revealed that it had originally planned to move to remote learning in the last week of term, but had dropped this after opposition from the DfE.
It then changed its plans to finishing term a week earlier and adding learning days to the calendar next year – but this was also rejected by the government.
Focus Trust said in a statement tonight: “While the plan to commence the holiday early had been made in the best interest of families and staff, and the time would be made up later in the year with schools offering 190 days of education, the trust received a formal letter directing them to overturn the decision by the DfE.”
And it said that it also made a further request for two inset days at the end of term, which was also subsequently rejected.
The chair of the trust board, Clive Davies, and the trust’s chief executive, Helen Rowland, said: “All of our decisions are taken with the best interests of our children, staff and the community in mind.
“This has been a very disruptive and exceptional term for all concerned, with the impact of Covid-19 being felt throughout our schools, resulting in absenteeism and staff shortages across the board.
“During our discussion on Sunday evening with the regional schools commissioner, we were made aware, for the first time, that under the Coronavirus Act 2020, individual trusts have no academy freedoms to make decisions for Covid related reasons, such as setting their own term dates.
“Although we are very disappointed at having to inform our staff and families of a change to our plans, we accept the DfE’s position and have reverted to the original term days.
“We welcome the government’s commitment to the roll out of increased and faster testing, and we hope that schools will be among the first to benefit from this development.
“Our full team remains committed to providing our children with a first-class education.”
A DfE spokesperson said that during talks with Focus Trust, the trust was reminded of the powers that exist that allow the secretary of state to direct a school to stay open under the Coronavirus Act but said no legal direction was made.
Last week, Focus Trust had announced it was closing schools a week early because of growing concern that staff and pupils would be forced to self-isolate during the traditional two-week holiday period as coronavirus cases in some of its communities were growing “significantly”.
It warned that it had already had to close "bubble groups" in 13 of its 15 primary schools and had more than a quarter of its pupils and a third of its staff self-isolating.
Ms Beer’s letter to the trust on Friday evening said: “It has been helpful to understand the careful thinking that has gone into the decision that the trust has taken.
“Nevertheless, I am disappointed to hear that you believe it is in the best interest of your students for all academies within your trust to finish autumn term on 11 December and I can not support this decision, and will be required to escalate this to ministers, who may wish to consider further action.
“The arrangements you are proposing are not aligned with our guidance, which has been very clear that limiting attendance at schools should only be done as a last resort, even in areas where a local alert level is ‘high’ or ‘very high’.
“The recently imposed national restrictions make this expectation even clearer, with the intention that schools are prioritised and enabled to remain open, due to the additional interventions imposed more widely. Given the impact already felt on children’s education since March, I do not think it is appropriate to extend the Christmas holiday, given the knock-on impact that this can have on lost learning.”