A London council which urged schools in its area to move to online learning this week has been ordered to withdraw its instructions by the education secretary, in the first use of emergency coronavirus powers granted earlier this year.
Gavin Williamson has 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 is the first time such an order has been given since the act passed into law.
On Sunday the leader of Greenwich council Dan Thorpe appealed to schools across the borough to close to most pupils from this evening in the face of “exponential growth” of Covid cases.
The move prompted schools minister Nick Gibb to warn earlier today that ministers would “consider” using the coronavirus act, which allows the education secretary to direct schools to stay open.
Tonight’s direction has been issued to Greenwich council itself. Local authorities are also considered a “relevant authority” under the terms of the coronavirus act.
The direction orders the council to withdraw letters sent to headteachers in the borough on Sunday asking them to close their schools at the end of today. It asks them to do so by 10am tomorrow at the latest.
The council has also been ordered to issue a ‘Schools Opening Requirement’ letter provided by Williamson to all headteachers in the borough.
The direction is enforceable “by the secretary of state making an application to the High Court or the county court for an injunction”, it continues.
Williamson said: “I have always been clear that using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority.
“That’s why I won’t hesitate to do what is right for young people and have issued a direction to Greenwich council setting out that they must withdraw the letter issued to headteachers on Sunday.”
Council leader Dan Thorpe said Greenwich was in the process of “seeking legal advice”, and would respond to the government in the morning.
He added that some schools across the borough “have now organised online learning from tomorrow, whilst others are opening their premises to all pupils”.
“We have alerted schools, and will speak to them tomorrow. But given we received this notification just before 5pm, it was impossible to ask schools to change any of the arrangements they have in place for Tuesday.”
Headteachers’ unions have reacted with fury to the news, after calling for flexibility for schools.
“Our sympathies are with schools, parents and pupils in Greenwich who are caught up in the government’s increasingly desperate attempts to impose its will,” said ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton, who said the government “appears to see this situation as a battle to be won rather than a solution to be found through reasoned discussion”.
“By now, schools will have already communicated their plans for the remaining four days of term to parents, and the die is surely cast. We can see no benefit from another last-minute change to plans which can only cause more upheaval.
“It is behaving like a playground bully and this is the last thing that schools need at the end of a gruelling and exhausting term”
Paul Whiteman, leader of the NAHT, said the government’s decision was “a disgrace”.
“The government has failed to help schools maintain the quality and continuity of education. In the absence of support LAs are bound to try and help. Judgment is needed not power preening. The misuse of crisis powers will live long in the memory.”
Islington Council has made a similar request of its schools, but has not been issued with a direction at this stage. The council has however been warned over its actions by its regional schools commissioner.