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Council reverses school closures after Education Secretary threatens legal action

The Royal Borough of Greenwich has cancelled its order that schools in the borough close following a Direction from the Secretary of State requiring that its schools stay open until the end of term.

The leader of Greenwich council, Cllr Danny Thorpe, wrote to school headteachers on Sunday evening requesting that schools should move to online learning following reports of increased Covid 19 infection rates in schools.

However, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, quickly issued a direction that the borough’s schools should remain open using new powers, introduced through the Coronavirus Act. The direction would be enforced by making an application to the High Court or the county court for an injunction.

After seeking legal advice yesterday (December 14) Cllr Danny Thorpe today decided to rescind his order because he could not "justify the use of public funds to fight the decision in the courts".

Responding to the government in an open letter, Cllr Thorpe wrote: "My motivation has never been about a legal battle with the government, as frankly we all have enough to do. Based on the information I had before me, I believed that this was the correct course of action for Royal Greenwich."

Cllr Thorpe said the decision to close schools came after headteachers told him on Friday that they had experienced their worst week of the pandemic and given that infection rates are rapidly rising.

According to Cllr Thorpe, weekly infection figures were "grim" with a 40-50% increase in cases in the borough compared to previous weeks.

At least two other councils - Waltham Forest and Islington - issued similar advice asking schools to shut this week.

Responding to news of the action against Greenwich on Twitter, Cllr Richard Watts, leader of Islington council, said that he had not heard formally from the government concerning Islington's move to close schools.

Announcing the move to close schools yesterday (December 14), Cllr Watts wrote: "We have always followed public health advice re schools. Over the weekend the scale of the rise in infections became clearer and so the advice we received changed. As a result we're recommending schools go online from the end of tomorrow until Monday 11/1."

As with Greenwich council's advice, Cllr Watts maintained that schools should stay open for children of key workers and those who need extra help. The council would also support families with the cost of the lost school meals in this period, according to Watts.

The leader of Waltham Forrest Council has also not been contacted by Westminster but reported that schools in the borough received a letter from the Minister for School Standards threatening legal action if they move to online schooling before the end of term.

Clare Coghill, Leader of Waltham Forest Council, said: “We have been made aware that the Minister for School Standards, the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, has written to schools across Waltham Forest threatening legal action if they do not stay open or re-open where they have followed the advice given by us yesterday. We would note that as of the issuing of this statement we have received no correspondence from the Minister today in relation to that advice.

“Yesterday, Monday 14 December, Waltham Forest met with headteachers, teaching unions and the Regional Schools Commissioner to discuss appropriate action in response to both the very high rates of Covid-19 in the borough coupled with the Government's relaxation of restrictions for the Christmas period. We followed these meetings up in writing to the Regional Schools Commissioner today, outlining the detailed reasons behind our advice to schools and asking for their explanation as to why they believe that it is not necessary to take further measures to safeguard our school communities.

“It is disappointing that, during a year when teachers, pupils and parents have made extraordinary efforts to ensure education continues through a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, the Minister has chosen to write to our schools threatening them with potential legal action."

Adam Carey