All London primary schools will now stay closed after another chaotic U-turn by education secretary Gavin Williamson on back-to-school plans he announced just 48-hours ago.
The Guardian reported the decision was made following an emergency Cabinet Office meeting today. Several London boroughs had been missed off a list of 50 Covid hotspots where primary schools would be closed to most pupils for the next two weeks.
Those excluded had challenged the government’s decision. Haringey council had advised its schools to defy government and remain closed to all but vulnerable and key worker children. Several were also preparing legal challenges, according to the Guardian.
Government’s incompetent handling of the return of schools is creating extreme stress on parents, pupils, and school staff and damaging education
The Department for Education said this evening it was implementing contingency measures across all of London primary schools to help suppress the spread of Covid and “protect public health and save lives”.
A press release stated: “The framework is not being implemented due to safety concerns in education. Schools have well established protective measures in place to maximise safety for pupils and staff and help reduce the risk of transmission.”
How long the primaries will remain closed for has not yet been communicated. Primaries in the original Covid hotspot regions will be closed for at least two weeks.
The primaries will open for on-site provision vulnerable and key worker children, and provide remote education for other pupils at home.
Alternative provision and special schools will remain fully open.
Williamson said that “moving further parts of London to remote education really is a last resort and a temporary solution.
“As infection rates rise across the country, and particularly in London, we must make this move to protect our country and the NHS
However Labour MP Wes Streeting, the shadow schools minister, said the “government’s incompetent handling of the return of schools and colleges is creating extreme stress on parents, pupils, and school and college staff and damaging education”.
Dan Thorpe, the leader of Greenwich council which faced legal action by the government over its attempts to close schools in the last week before Christmas, said: “This is a decision that vindicates our safety first approach we took at the end of the last term in the best interests of Greenwich. Faced with an exponential growth in Covid cases, we were clear immediate action was required.
“There remain huge questions to answer about how they ever came to this decision in the first place and we will continue to push for those answers. Our schools, parents & teachers deserve to know that those making decisions about them have done so in their best interests.”
The decision is unlikely to end unrest in the sector following the eleventh hour re-opening plans announced two days ago, with the government still facing pressure over reopening schools in tier 4 regions, as well as mandating testing in secondary schools.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said ministers have corrected an “obviously nonsensical position – one that it could not justify by evidence or sense.
“But the question has to be asked: why are education ministers so inadequate and inept? Who is advising them? And what is right for London is right for the rest of the country.”
The NEU has called for all schools to remain closed until mid-January at the earliest, saying it’s not safe for them to reopen on Monday.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) advised ministers on December 22 that it is “highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November [with schools open] would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant”.
Schools Week reported earlier today that the DfE is considering plans to make face masks compulsory in the classroom for pupils in year 7 and above, as well as their teachers.
The plan was communicated to school representatives by a government official during a briefing on Covid plans this week.
The DfE would only say the government continues to keep protective measures under review, adding its current guidance remains up to date.
Government scientists have said mandating the wearing of face masks in schools may now be necessary as the new Covid strain causes cases to rise.
The DfE has been heavily criticised over this week’s new back-to-school plans, with confusion over changing expectations on remote learning, a quietly announced U-turn on mass testing now being mandatory and only publishing detailed return plans for special schools at 5.50pm on New Year’s Eve.