Covid school closure row: DfE ‘overstepping the mark’

Accusation from teaching union comes as academy trusts say DfE has not done enough to communicate its powers

John Roberts

The CST has said the government need to do more to communicate the powers it has over schools as a result of the Coronavirus Act.

Academy leaders have criticised the Department for Education (DfE) for not doing enough to communicate the powers it has over schools under the Coronavirus Act.

The concern comes after the DfE told an academy trust that was planning to close early for Christmas that the department could use this legislation to “direct” it to stay open. 

Now, the Confederation of School Trusts, which represents the country’s academy sector, has said that powers contained in the act have never been shared with schools in any guidance from the department sent to trusts.

Meanwhile, the largest teaching union has said the DfE is “overstepping the mark”.

Academies: MATs have 'no freedoms' over Covid

Break: Academy trust announces it is closing a week early for Christmas

Council: Schools to move lessons on line to avoid families having to self isolate

Ministers: Public health directors told to back DfE plans to keep schools fully open

The Coronavirus Act states that the education secretary can issue a “temporary continuity direction” that an institution must stay open, reopen or open at times it would not usually be open. He can also issue a direction that alters term dates for schools.

But Steve Rollett, deputy chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said: “We don’t think enough has been done by the DfE to communicate the powers the secretary of state has under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and to explain how these powers relate to existing legislation and academy freedoms relating to the trust sector.

“The powers in the Coronavirus Act have never been included in any guidance shared with trusts.” 

The leaders of a trust in the North of England said last night that it was not aware of these powers until the DfE pointed out that they could be used against the trust to ensure it overturned its plan to finish early for Christmas.

The Focus Trust had planned to close its 15 schools a week early for Christmas to safeguard staff and pupils and “protect precious family time together”.  It said this decision was being taken after significant rises in Covid cases in its community, which had led to bubbles being stood down in 13 of its 15 schools.

However, it withdrew this plan after learning at a meeting with the regional schools commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, Vicky Beer, that the DfE could use powers under the Coronavirus Act to order the trust’s schools to stay open.

The Focus Trust said last night that it was told “individual trusts have no academy freedoms to make decisions for Covid related reasons”.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, criticised the government for its response to the Focus Trust.

He said: “I think the DfE is overstepping the mark here. Schools are coming to the department with a problem and a solution, and the department’s response is to reject the solution and I think it is turning its back on the problem.

“It is determined to keep schools fully open despite the pressures being created by Covid increasing and this will increase the likelihood of cases continuing to increase in schools, and staff and pupils having to isolate over Christmas.”

The DfE was contacted for comment.

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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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