Overruled: DfE’s sweeping Coronavirus powers force trust into early Christmas holiday U-turn

The DfE has published a new version of the Academies Financial Handbook for 2021, rebranded the Academy Trust Handbook.

An academy trust has been forced by the government to ditch its intention to close early for Christmas – a move that is likely to kill off any wider attempts to extend the festive break.

Focus Trust announced on Friday that its 15 schools across Manchester and West Yorkshire would close on December 11, a week earlier than planned. This was to “safeguard the wellbeing of staff and pupils and protect precious family time together” over the festive break, the trust said.

But the trust was threatened with action from ministers if it didn’t U-turn by regional schools commissioner Vicky Beer.

Focus confirmed last night it would no longer close early after receiving a “formal” letter.

Trust chair Clive Davies and chief executive Helen Rowland said: “During our discussion on Sunday evening with the RSC we were made aware, for the first time, that under the Coronavirus Act 2020, individual trusts have no academy freedoms to make decisions for Covid related reasons, such as setting their own term dates.

“Although we are very disappointed at having to inform our staff and families of a change to our plans, we accept the DfE’s position and have reverted to the original term days.”

Under coronavirus legal powers, the secretary of state can issue a temporary continuity direction “requiring the taking of reasonable steps” to keep a school open and also “require the alteration of term dates”.

In the case of non-compliance, the law states education secretary Gavin Williamson can make an application to the high court for an injunction.

In a sign of the DfE’s intentions for other schools looking to follow suit, it also refused the trust permission to run two inset days at the end of term or move to remote learning for the final week of term.

Davies and Rowland added: “All of our decisions are taken with the best interests of our children, staff and the community in mind.

“This has been a very disruptive and exceptional term for all concerned, with the impact of Covid-19 being felt throughout our schools, resulting in absenteeism and staff shortages across the board.”

Rowland said despite “robust Covid secure arrangements”, bubbles have been closed in 13 of its schools – meaning over a quarter of the trust’s pupils (1,740 children) and 38 per cent of staff (375) have had to self-isolate.

The DfE’s crackdown is likely to kill off any further moves to change term dates or provision in the run up to Christmas.

However it comes as attendance in school plunges, and larger numbers of teachers isolating forces schools to close.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said schools now have a “chaotic rota system by default… The government has to recognise reality. The current situation is unsustainable.”

But, in the government’s Winter Plan published yesterday, schools were told they “should not change their Christmas holidays or close early this term”.

Parents “should continue to send their children to school during term time and students should continue to attend college right up until the end of term”, it added.

School minister Nick Gibb said: “The best place for children to be is in schools, which is why it remains a national priority to keep them open full time and avoid further disruption to education.

“I know this is a challenging time but the latest data shows only 0.2% of pupils were off school isolating with a confirmed case of coronavirus. Closing early for Christmas or extending the holidays is not the answer.”

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