Greenwich Council leader said he has “no choice” but to ask schools to remain open following threats of legal action from the Government, after sending ‘intimidating and unnecessary legal letters.’
The local authority has agreed to withdraw its advice to schools in the south-east London borough to move to online learning for the last few days of term amid rising Covid-19 rates in the capital.
The decision comes after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told the Labour-run council on Monday evening to keep schools open to all pupils until the end of term or it will face legal action.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We deplore the use of legal threats and bullying letters that we have seen from the DfE.
“Publicly, ministers express their thanks to school leaders, whilst behind the scenes they are sending intimidating and unnecessary legal letters. We object to these double standards in the strongest terms.
“Schools which are using their local knowledge and expertise to provide the highest quality education and care for their pupils should not be threatened by legal action for using sensible flexibilities to manage their way through to the end of term.
“The Government’s lack of support for schools throughout the pandemic has been staggering, and they should be ashamed of this latest tactic.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), urged other councils to move to remote education.
He said: “The Government should have been planning for this weeks ago. They have now started to recognise the blindingly obvious fact that transmission is happening in schools and that this can spread to families. Much more is needed to control the virus in schools and to protect communities.”
In a statement, Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe said: “With Covid-19 cases rising rapidly in the borough, I cannot agree that this is the correct choice for our schools.
“However, I also cannot justify the use of public funds to fight the decision in the courts.
“Consequently, I have no choice but to ask our schools to keep their doors open to all students rather than just continuing with online learning.”
But a headteachers’ union leader said he “would not be surprised” if many parents still decide to keep their children at home this week amid concerns over the Covid-19 infection rate despite the Government’s victory.
Schools in Greenwich had been told to switch to remote learning for most pupils from Monday evening in a letter sent out by Mr Thorpe on Sunday.
Leaders at two other Labour-run local authorities – Waltham Forest and Islington – have also advised schools to move to online learning for the last few days of term amid rising Covid-19 rates in the capital.
It came as London mayor Sadiq Khan called on the Government to consider closing all secondary schools and colleges in the capital early and reopen later in January due to coronavirus.
But on Monday night, Mr Williamson issued a temporary continuity direction to the London Borough of Greenwich demanding it withdraws letters to headteachers and parents which advised schools to close.
The direction states it is enforceable by Mr Williamson making an application to the High Court or the county court for an injunction if the council does not comply by 10am on Tuesday.
In a statement on Tuesday morning, Mr Thorpe added: “From the start of this pandemic, both myself and the whole council have worked tirelessly to support our whole school community.
“The action we took on Sunday was based solely on doing the right thing for our borough, not a protracted legal argument with the Government, which absolutely nobody needs at the end of an extremely difficult term.
“The council has issued the following response to the Government, which outlines our serious concerns about forcing our students to attend school in person and our intention to reluctantly comply with the Secretary of State’s directive.”
But Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, warned that closing schools could see children “pay the long-term price” as she supported ministers’ decision to keep schools open until the end of term.
Her comments came as a report from the watchdog concluded that repeated periods of isolation due to Covid-19 have “chipped away” at the progress that pupils have been able to make since returning to school.
Ms Spielman told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are in a really difficult situation where people are having to weigh up short-term concerns about health risks and long-term concerns about children’s education.”
“It is so easy to call for closures, and forget the long-term price that children pay. We need clarity, consistency, not last-minute decisions,” she added.