Trust ordered to scrap extended Christmas holiday, or face ‘action’ from ministers


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.

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  1. M Wright

    Nick Gibb states “0.2% of pupils were off school isolating with a confirmed case of coronavirus ” but the true impact of self-isolation is on the total number of pupils required to self isolate, not just the positive cases. His failure to provide this figure diminishes the impact that the virus is having on much larger numbers of children.
    I wonder what motivates him to quote the smallest figure he can find.

  2. Richard John

    I have searched through DFE documentation and whilst the RSC might disagree with the decision, which I believe has now been reversed due to political pressure, but it is not within their purview to order a school to open.

    When academies exert their Gove given autonomy they get shot down.

  3. Mark Watson

    Without commenting on the substance of this article, but just to address the facile comments above, the academies programme was NEVER about giving individual schools totally unfettered freedom. Academies have certain freedoms, but are restricted in terms of fundamentals like certain things they have to teach and certain things they can’t, how they manage their admissions, and the minimum amount of time they have to be open. That has never been anything other than crystal clear.

    Reacting in mock outrage, as if you support the idea of total individual freedoms for academies, is disingenuous.

      • Mark Watson

        Thank you. The quote you’ve pulled out proves my point entirely. It says academies have MORE control over how they do things, not TOTAL control.

        Academies do have more control over their curriculum – they do not have to follow the national curriculum but they do have to have a “balanced and broadly based” curriculum which must include English, maths and science. So “more control” but not “total control” there then, and no one has ever envisaged any different.

        it’s interesting you refer to setting term dates, because of course the reality is that all schools have the power to set their own term dates. The Deregulation Act 2015 transferred responsibility for determining term dates in community, voluntary controlled and community special schools and maintained nursery schools from local authorities in England to governing bodies.

        So yes, academies do have the ability to change their term dates in the same way as all other schools, but they can’t make a unilateral decision to change the end date of a term with three weeks’ notice and no consultation.

  4. I don’t know the circumstances around the school but in broad terms I can’t quite see why a school or trust can unilaterally decide to shorten its term. We are tasked with teaching X number of days and that what we should do.
    I understand a hard working school might need to close for covid related reasons (such as no teachers or too many bubbles out). I also think a government can close all schools or regional schools for similar reasons. But I don’t think this is what has happened here.
    On the face of it I fear it looks like a school saying, “We can do what we want because we’re an Academy and we are going to close a week early.”