A headteachers’ leader has warned that it is “inappropriate” for the Department for Education to use emergency powers to prevent schools taking "operational" decisions about how to stay open during the Covid crisis.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has urged the government to avoid being "excessive" in the way it uses powers under the Coronavirus Act to manage schools.
And he also told Tes that plans for the DfE to scrap its own four-tier Covid system – which includes allowing schools to move to rotas where necessary – were "strange to the point of being surreal".
His was speaking after an academy trust that had planned to close early for Christmas over Covid concerns was told by the DfE that the department had the power to order it to keep its schools open.
Focus Academy Trust had planned to close a week early to safeguard staff and pupils and “protect precious family time together” at Christmas, after a significant rise in Covid cases in its community.
However, it backed down after it was told by the DfE’s regional schools commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, Vicky Beer, that it could be directed to stay open using powers under the Coronavirus Act.
The DfE said it did not make a legal direction but reminded the trust of the powers available to it.
Mr Barton said: “We recognise that in emergency circumstances it is not unreasonable for the government to have emergency powers, but it needs to be careful that the application of those powers is not excessive."
Coronavirus: Call for government clarity over school rotas
He added: “It is our view that it would be entirely inappropriate to use emergency powers to prevent schools from taking operational decisions, and this is one of the reasons we are calling for a clear statement from the government over flexibility to use rotas.”
Mr Barton said the ASCL had called for schools to be allowed to use rotas “if they are experiencing severe disruption and if this approach would help them to manage a very difficult situation”.
He added: “This as an operational decision which is best taken on the ground by schools according to the circumstances they are facing, rather than by the government from an office in Whitehall or through regional schools commissioners.”
Moving secondary schools to rotas is part of a four-tier system for schools created by the DfE to manage Covid outbreaks locally.
However, Tes has learned that the department is planning to scrap these tiers and move to an "on-off" system, whereby schools are either fully open or closed to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers.
Scrapping tiers 'is a strange decision'
Mr Barton said: “If the DfE intends to scrap that system and replace it with a new system in which schools would be either fully open or open only for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, that would be strange to the point of being surreal.
"It would mean that schools would have planned for a tiered response to contingencies only for that work to be torn up and replaced with a system which is effectively the all-or-nothing approach we were keen to avoid.”
Under the outgoing four-tier system, secondary schools in tier 1 have needed masks to be worn in “the communal areas” but not in classrooms.
In tier 2, secondary schools would be moved on to rotas. In tier 3, secondary school year groups would be sent home, and in tier 4, education settings would close to all but vulnerable children and those of critical workers.
The ASCL and local leaders in areas hit hard by Covid-19 have called for schools to be allowed to move to rotas but the DfE has resisted this despite rising Covid cases – now affecting three in four secondary schools in the country.
Two weeks ago education secretary Gavin Williamson and health secretary Matt Hancock wrote to public health directors telling them that the government wanted schools to be kept fully open and not moved on to rotas during the national lockdown.