A regional schools commissioner has told a trust she “can not support” its decision to close early for Christmas, warning if they don’t U-turn she will “escalate” the case to ministers who “may wish to consider further action”.
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.
However regional schools commissioner Vicky Beer has intervened, telling the trust she’s “disappointed” and cannot support the decision. The Department for Education has now claimed the latest update is that the trust has dropped its plans to close early following the intervention, but the trust said it is still “consulting internally” on its position.
Given the impact already felt on children’s education since March, I do not think it is appropriate to extend the Christmas holiday
In a letter sent to the trust on Friday, seen by Schools Week, Beer stated she will be “required to escalate this to ministers, who may wish to consider further action” should the trust not ditch the plans.
She added: “The arrangements you are proposing are not aligned with our guidance which has been very clear that limiting attendance at schools should only be done as a last resort, even in areas where a local alert level is ‘high’ or ‘very high’.
“The recently imposed national restrictions make this expectation even clearer, with the intention that schools are prioritised and enabled to remain open, due to the additional interventions imposed more widely.
“Given the impact already felt on children’s education since March, I do not think it is appropriate to extend the Christmas holiday, given the knock-on impact that this can have on lost learning.”
Explaining the decision last week, Focus chief executive Helen Rowland said: “Our priority is always to safeguard the mental and physical health and wellbeing of our children and our staff, and every decision we make is with their best interests, and those of our local communities in mind.”
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.
One school, after having no previous cases, now has 90 children (almost half the school) and 10 staff isolating following an outbreak.
The “proactive” decision to close early would help ensure no one if forced to self-isolate over the holiday because of a Covid contact at school, she said, adding the time will be “made up later in the school year when it is safe and practical to do so”. Academies are free to set their own term dates.
But Beer said she is “concerned as to the additional disruption and inconvenience this will cause to many parents due to the additional child care arrangements required as a result of this action.”
She adds she would be “grateful” if Focus U-turned, and asked the trust to “confirm [its] actions in writing” by the end of today so the information can be passed to ministers.
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.”
The intervention comes as schools in Hull, the worst-hit region in the country, have asked the government for greater flexibility to close in the run-up to Christmas as they are on the “brink of collapse”.
Stockport Council has also told parents today that schools due to open on Monday, December 21, and Tuesday, December 22, will not run on-site provision on these days. Instead, pupils will be provided with home learning. The council told Schools Week this was a “local decision”, suggesting the DfE had not been involved.
Schools Week revealed how the government had launched an “urgent commission” last week to quiz academy trusts over their Covid protocols as education secretary Gavin Williamson scrambled to get a grip on the rise in cases.
Department for Education attendance statistics show the number of pupils isolating doubled within a week to over 550,000, with almost two-thirds of secondary schools reporting cases.
Updated at 12.17pm to include the DfE statement that the trust has dropped its plans to close early, while the trust said they are still in consultation about a decision.