Councils across England have snubbed Gavin Williamson’s offer of extra funding to find alternative polling stations so school nativities can go ahead.
Last week we revealed how the education secretary had been told that his extra cash for councils who wanted to avoid using schools on December 12 was too little, too late.
Councils claimed they had already booked sites. Others said poll cards with schools’ details had already been printed. And one headteacher claimed her council rebuffed two other choices – with a reception nativity facing disruption (see box-out below).
Peter Stanyon, the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, told Schools Week he was “not surprised”.
“The venues for polling stations are not just picked overnight. They’re set well in advance of elections.
“It was the timing of the election being called that’s been the issue, not the fact venues themselves are regularly used as polling stations.”
Councils in North West Leicestershire, Fylde, South Ribble, Central Bedfordshire, Rossendale, Woking, Gateshead and the London borough of Brent said time constraints stopped them taking up Williamson’s offer.
A spokesperson for North West Leicestershire said it came “too late as we needed to book the polling station as soon as the election was announced” to allow poll card data to be printed and issued to voters.
Woking council said it had “no other suitable venues within the polling district”, and that, “due to the short timeframe . . . the offer of extra funding from the DfE has not been taken up”.
Other councils said finding alternative venues was not an option.
Cheltenham council, for example, said cost was “not a factor in being unable to find alternatives to schools used”, and Stratford-upon-Avon said that if alternatives were available, “we would use them”.
Earlier this month, Schools Week revealed how hundreds of schools face rescheduling nativity plays and Christmas concerts because their sites are being used for the snap election.
Of 1,450 primary teachers surveyed by Teacher Tapp, 116 (one in 12) said the election would disrupt a planned activity such as a nativity play or concert.
When secondaries were taken into account, 219 respondents said there would be some kind of disruption, including to end-of-year assessments.
In response Williamson wrote to councils on November 5 with a pledge to “reimburse necessary costs” to support councils find other polling venues and “avoid disrupting long-planned and important events” during the run-up to Christmas.
Responding to the letter last week Stanyon said the education secretary had a “complete lack of knowledge and understanding” of how elections worked.
The row has ignited the debate over whether schools should be used as polling stations. It’s the third time some will close this year, with both the European Parliament and council elections in May.
However, Nottingham council said no school would close for the election.
Of the ten designated as polling stations, eight would remain fully open and two would have to close nursery provision only.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that while Williamson’s offer was “well-meaning”, it was “unfortunate that the hasty nature of this election means none of the solutions offered look like they will help schools”.
A school has rescheduled its reception nativity play after the local council rebuffed alternative venues for a polling station.
Helen Williamson, the head of Billingshurst primary school, said Horsham rejected her proposal to move the polling station to a nearby leisure centre because it was “being used by a school during the day”.
“I responded that our school is being used by a school during the day.”
Williamson said she was “incredibly frustrated, particularly as I’ve been campaigning on this issue for ten years.
“I fully appreciate that for councils working at short notice this is very challenging, but . . . pretty much any other venue would be more suitable.”
The school said it had no choice but to move its reception nativity, due to take place on December 12, to a different week.
In a letter to parents, Williamson said that week has “six other year groups performing. I am sure you do not want to have to choose which of your children’s performances to attend if they clash.”
The school will lose access to a hall, denying “at least 120 children a hot meal that on every other day of the school year is their legal entitlement”.
Abi Smith, who has three children at the school, including one in reception, said: “It’s almost like the council isn’t listening and doesn’t care. My child has started talking about Christmas already, and he’s come back excited. It’s quite a big deal for them.”
Horsham council was approached for comment.