Greenwich backs down over school closures after legal threat leaves ‘no choice’


A London council which asked its schools to switch to online learning for the final week of term has now asked them to remain open following a legal order from the government.

Last night education secretary Gavin Williamson issued a “temporary continuity direction” under the emergency Coronavirus Act 2020 ordering the London Borough of Greenwich to rescind its request to schools to close.

It was the first use of the emergency coronavirus powers granted this year and while the council leader Dan Thorpe said it was in the process of “seeking legal advice” he has now revealed the council will bow to the government’s wishes.

He said: “While I cannot agree that this is the correct choice for our schools, I also cannot justify the use of public funds to fight the decision in the courts.

“Consequently, I have no choice but to ask our schools to keep their door open to all students rather than just continuing online learning.”

The council leader originally requested schools within the borough switch to online learning on Sunday evening following an “exponential growth” of Covid cases in the area. 

The move prompted schools minister Nick Gibb to warn ministers would “consider” using the coronavirus act – which allows the education secretary to direct schools to stay open. 

Last night the Greenwich council was ordered to issue a ‘Schools Opening Requirement’ letter provided by Williamson to all headteachers in the borough.

This direction is enforceable by “the secretary of state making an application to the High Court or the county court for an injunction”.

Thorpe added: “From the start of this pandemic, both myself and the whole Council have worked tirelessly to support our whole school community. T

“The action we took on Sunday was based solely on doing the right thing for our borough, not a protracted legal argument with the Government, which absolutely nobody needs at the end of an extremely difficult term.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said while the government had won a “hollow victory” the union would not be shocked to find “parents simply keep their children at home given the evident concern over Covid infection rates.”

He added: “It has been an unseemly end to a gruelling and exhausting term when schools at the very least deserved some flexibility over their end-of-term arrangements in the best interests of their pupils and staff, but instead have been met with legal threats from the government, not only in Greenwich but more widely. That will not be easily forgotten.”

Paul Whiteman, leader of the NAHT, previously called the government’s decision to threaten legal action as “a disgrace”.

Elsewhere schools in Waltham Forest and Islington have received  letters from Gibb threatening legal action if they close schools before the end of term. 

In the letter he warns he is “deeply disappointed and concerned by the unilateral stance” to switch all schools in the area to online learning and warns the government will consider using its powers under the Coronavirus Act “in this instance”. 


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