Exclusive: You can't close schools, health chiefs told

Gavin Williamson and Matt Hancock tell public health directors there will be no rotas and school closures in lockdown

John Roberts

Coronavirus: Education secretary Gavin Willamson (pictured) and health secretary Matt Hancock have written to public health directors telling them to support the government on keeping schools open

Gavin Williamson and Matt Hancock have told local public health directors to back the government's plans not to close schools or move them on to rotas, as Covid cases rise.

A letter from the secretaries of state for education and health says the government expects local health officials to support it in not moving to rotas in secondary schools or to increased online learning in colleges in their local areas during the national lockdown.

The letter says directors of public health need to be clear with the schools in their area about what "should and should not be proposed" in terms of their operations.

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Mr Williamson and Mr Hancock's letter admits that "unfortunately, the prevalence of the virus is worsening" but stresses that the government will not be closing schools.

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Their letter also reminds local officials that the government's tiered Contain framework – which includes plans to move secondary schools on to rotas, close year groups or close schools to all but vulnerable children and those of critical workers – is in place to help manage coronavirus prevalence locally.

But it says that these measures have not been required so far in any local area because of other lockdown measures in place.

The letter, seen by Tes, was sent on 11 November.

The Department for Education has faced calls from education unions and local leaders in the city with the highest Covid rate in the country to change its position on keeping all schools open amid rising numbers of coronavirus cases in schools.

The joint letter from Mr Williamson and Mr Hancock says: "Given that the chief medical officers of all four nations have been clear that the very best place for children and young people is to be in school, college and early years settings, we should not take lightly any decision to move through the educational tiers, as this would limit pupils’ time in school (and we know that many pupils and students have already had their education disrupted by needing to self-isolate for periods of time).

"We have taken a national decision to prioritise education during the current period of national restrictions in order to avoid any further reduction in face-to-face education for children and young people beyond what is necessitated when they are required to self-isolate.

"We will therefore not be moving up the tiers in any local area during the period of national lockdown – this means no move to rotas in secondary schools, or to increased online learning in colleges. We expect directors of public health to support this position in their local areas."

Earlier this week the Association of School and College Leaders warned that schools are already operating on a "chaotic rota system by default", with two-thirds of secondaries sending students home because of Covid.

The ASCL's general secretary, Geoff Barton, said schools "need to be given more latitude to move to a planned rota system if they feel that this would be less disruptive, more manageable, and in the best interests of their pupils".

And prime minister Boris Johnson has been called upon to allow partial school closures in the city of Hull where Covid-19 infection rates are the highest in the country and have risen at an “astonishing and terrifying” rate.

The prime minister has said it is a priority to keep schools open during the latest lockdown, but the leader of Hull City Council, Stephen Brady,  called on him to allow “more local freedom and flexibility” in restrictions around schools.

Just before the start of the academic year, the Department for Education published a four-tier plan for its "worst-case scenario" in which access to education needs to be restricted to manage the spread of Covid.   

In tier one masks have to be worn in communal areas of secondary schools, in tier two secondary schools are moved on to rotas.

The third tier would involve year groups being sent home and tier four would involve schools only staying open to vulnerable children and those of key workers. 

No schools have been moved on to tiers two, three or four to date, despite the country now being in a national lockdown.


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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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