Ministers chose confrontation over collaboration when our communities needed them most

21 Dec 2020, 15:24

When the government issued Royal Greenwich with the threat of legal action on Monday night, I was completely shocked. At no point in the previous 24 hours did I genuinely think that trying to do the right thing for my local schools, in the face of surging infections and almost 4,000 pupils in self-isolation, could result in legal action being taken.

On the Sunday that we took the decision, we had no knowledge of the virus mutation and how rampant it is in our part of the county.

But when Sir Patrick Vallance told the country at Saturday’s hastily arranged press conference that by December 9 the new variant accounted for 62% of all new cases in London, it was finally the context that was needed in Royal Greenwich to help explain the increasing pressure being faced in our school system at the end of a truly horrendous term.

At no point did I genuinely think trying to do the right thing for my local schools could result in legal action being taken

Given the week we’d had in Royal Greenwich, I was as shocked as anyone when the secretary of state’s volte-face finally came on the last day of term. The government belatedly seemed to recognise that it wasn’t just Houston that had a problem – but schools in Royal Greenwich and across the country.

However this last-minute recognition simply highlighted the fact that even on the very last day of term, as we enter some of the darkest days of the pandemic, the government still has no clear strategy for supporting schools, of all shapes and sizes, with the many COVID-19 challenges that we face as a country.

With many school leaders currently more immersed in contact tracing than they are in stuffing their turkeys, the announcements about testing have raised more questions than answers.

I absolutely support all schools being open to all pupils and am proud that in Royal Greenwich, our schools have gone above and beyond anything I thought possible.

Feeding families in crisis, going door-to-door to check on the kids we all worry about but don’t quite meet the thresholds for formal intervention, and arranging, managing then rearranging bubbles are just some of the miracles I have seen performed from a distance.

I have been in awe of their achievements on almost a daily basis for the last nine months.

But I have been equally furious with the haphazard and chaotic approach that has made things on the ground so much harder than they needed to be.

An online voucher system for our most vulnerable children that didn’t work. The stress, angst and distress felt by thousands of our young people during the summer fiasco for GCSE and A Level students.

The promises about laptops that failed to materialise in quite the same way as the positive press releases pumping out of Whitehall.

And at the final turn, with infections rising rapidly, rising numbers of pupils and staff in isolation and not classrooms, and schools across the country having to change the way they did things to manage (which the Department for Education consistently refused to admit), the government decided to embark on a course of confrontation rather than collaboration.

And this coming at a time when councils like the Royal Borough of Greenwich and communities like ours needed them most.

I recognise this has been an extremely challenging year for all involved in the pandemic response, but it is now vital that the government changes its approach.

We need a fully coordinated response from all of us, rather than Whitehall simply barking orders.

Whilst we are now managing a whole range of issues relating to the new variant of this dreadful virus, I sincerely hope that the government finally steps up and addresses these challenges in a rapid, coherent manner.

We need a clear strategy about how testing is going to work across the country.

We need a clear strategy that sets out how the government will support schools in these extraordinary circumstances, so that they don’t repeat the same mistakes that have happened this year.

And, more importantly, we need an urgent strategy to address the growing inequalities that COVID-19 is inflicting on our children and young people.

Their futures depend on us, now more than ever.

Cllr Danny Thorpe is leader of Labour-run Greenwich council, and tweets as @DanLThorpe

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  1. Janet Downs

    Minsters have a long history of choosing confrontation over collaboration. Teachers and LAs have constantly been attacked if they don’t agree with DfE policy or criticise steps foisted upon them (eg academization, curricular change).
    Instead, the DfE has treated them as the enemy to be bullied into submission.