Joshua Neicho: Will government learn lessons from London primary schools reopening debacle?

Joshua Neicho: Will government learn lessons from London primary schools reopening debacle?

“It’s absolutely incredible,” says Redbridge Council leader Jas Athwal, “that the first I heard about it was the uproar of parents on social media saying, ‘how can you let this happen?'” 

The government’s chaotic approach to the re-opening of London’s primary schools, which culminated in Friday’s dramatic U-turn to allow them all to remain closed for most pupils until 18 January, began late last Wednesday afternoon.

In a House of Commons statement, education secretary Gavin Williamson said the majority of primaries in England would reopen as scheduled on Monday, 4 January. Then journalists began reporting a list of exceptions – English local authority areas where reopening would be delayed.

Of the capital’s 32 boroughs, 22 were on the list. These did not include Redbridge, despite it having one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the city.

With only one full working day remaining before primary pupils were due to return to their schools, Athwal and senior officers – along with those aghast Redbridge parents – had no idea why their borough was not on the delayed reopening list.

The same went for the leaders of Camden, Greenwich, Hackney, Haringey, Harrow, Islington, Kingston, Lambeth and Lewisham, also left off the list, along with the City of London Corporation.

Camden leader Georgia Gould, who, since September, has also been chair of London Councils, the capital’s cross-party representative body, tells On London of having to “scrabble round to find out what the list was” on the afternoon concerned and that after “working really well together as a cross-party group of leaders and also working well with government, having it come out of the blue was shocking and disappointing”.

Gould’s immediate concern was how she would explain to Camden parents why their primary school age children were being asked to go back on Monday, while their counterparts in neighbouring Westminster, which until mid-December had the lowest Covid rates in the capital, were not. Gould says that, as in Redbridge, she and colleagues were “inundated” with “understandable concerns from teachers and parents”.

Mystery surrounded why the capital’s boroughs had been treated differently from each other at all, as this contradicted the established approach, advocated by Sadiq Khan and otherwise accepted by government, of treating the capital as a single unit for Covid restrictions. And there seemed to be no consistent link between a borough’s Covid infection rate and the date the government gave it for its primary schools to begin admitting all their pupils.

For example, Camden and Liberal Democrat-run Kingston – the only non-Labour borough left off the delayed start list – had relatively low rates of new infections according to the latest publicly available data, while Haringey, Hackney and Lambeth were in the top half of the table and Redbridge stood out as having the second highest rate in London. “When the secretary of state took the decision to protect some communities, he should have offered the same to those with higher rates of infection,” says Haringey leader Joseph Ejiofor, who, prior to Friday’s U-turn, told his borough’s schools he would back them if they decided to stay closed.

Redbridge was quickly recategorised. Athwal had previously told Redbridge schools he would support them if they decided to close early before Christmas, taking the view that high levels of supply teachers and an estimated 7,000 students across the borough self-isolating constituted a serious safeguarding issue. After news of the government’s initial decision broke on Wednesday, he says he rallied his director of education Colin Stewart and Ilford North MP Wes Streeting and demanded the department “give us the logic, a grain of truth why we should stay open. Within two hours, they realised there was no logic in it”. It has also been reported that Redbridge was left off the original delayed list in error.

There were other apparent oddities. The most recent data for Lambeth show a higher infection rate than its neighbours Wandsworth and Southwark, which were included on the delayed opening list. A long thin borough, 20% of Lambeth’s resident children go to schools in other boroughs while around 20% of students in Lambeth schools come in from outside. “It was a typical, ridiculous, stupid measure, done in a ridiculous, contentious way, that confuses people and upsets them,” said Ed Davie, Lambeth’s cabinet member for children and young people the day after the decision. “Yet again the government is showing how incompetent it is.”

Overnight, a London Councils working group put together a response to the DfE setting out their concerns around how the decision on the reopening plan was made and the lack of consultation, and requesting the rationale behind the distinctions between boroughs. Other asks included prioritising the vaccination of staff in schools and more support for testing.

Later on Thursday, the boroughs still expected at that time to open on Monday (with the exception of Kingston) agreed a letter asking to be added to the delayed list. Having taken legal advise, they argued that the decision to exclude certain boroughs was unlawful because no justification for it had been shown to them. A chaser letter was sent on Friday morning, and a further one was prepared for that evening.

Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville and his deputy Antoinette Bramble made a Freedom of Information request to the DfE seeking the reasons behind the decision. Although the immediate issue has now passed, Glanville says he “wants a reply… we need a stable decision-making basis to bringing schools back”. 

Schools minister Nick Gibb had separate meetings with borough leaders, Mayor Khan and MPs for constituencies across England on Thursday. At the last of these he faced questions about the DfE’s thinking from Lambeth MPs Florence Eshalomi and Bell Ribeiro-Addy. Williamson finally responded to this line of enquiry at 10.55 p.m. on New Year’s Eve by outlining three criteria – prevalence of Covid-19, rate of increase of infections and hospitalisations – but not providing any formula or weighting.

Councillors say there was no sign of the DfE softening its stance during Friday, and when news of the U-turn emerged at around 5.00 p.m it was as sudden as the original decision. There had earlier been a Cabinet Office meeting, causing some to wonder if a decision may have been made over the head of the DfE by Michael Gove.

What was the motivation for the DfE’s original approach? Greenwich leader Danny Thorpe reports “very clear concern in my community – from both residents and schools – that Greenwich was being punished” for his telling his borough’s schools in mid-December that they should close early for Christmas as local infection rates soared. Thorpe describes this as “deeply troubling, as we need to ensure that all our residents have confidence and trust in the response to the pandemic”.

Other borough leaders leave it at “really poor” or “flawed” decision-making. Islington’s Richard Watts thinks the DfE doesn’t like dealing with local authorities at the best of times, and is also institutionally reluctant to treat London as a single place for fear of facing capital-wide resistance.

Even so, there’s pride from Gould and fellow council leaders in their demonstration of cross-party, “One London” working by the boroughs, with strong support from the Mayor. Greenwich’s opposition leader, the Conservative Nigel Fletcher, mindful of the challenges from the “genuinely frightening” rise in infection rates over Christmas, says, “I’ve always believed London needs to act together to combat this virus. It’s the only approach that makes sense”.

On this basis he disagreed with Thorpe issuing his pre-Christmas unilateral advice and says he “strongly disagreed” with the DfE’s selective approach to boroughs for the same reason: “I understand the government’s profound reluctance to disrupt children’s education, and I feel desperately sorry for our school staff and parents. But we really are in a very dangerous situation. We need all levels of government to work together more constructively, with mutual recognition that these are really tough calls that none of us would ever want to make.” 

Looking ahead, Joseph Ejiofor is confident that, on the strength of London Councils’ diplomacy during this extraordinary dispute, there is going to be a much better relationship with the DfE from now on. Gould says she is hopeful of the same thing. “I genuinely feel our conversations with the schools minister were constructive. I have really set out that we want a dialogue.”

Some of her London borough colleagues and London MPs take a drier view, frustrated by the recurring pattern of information being withheld until the last minute and flaky decision-making.  “Had ministers bothered to consult with local NHS and public health professionals or the council, they would have understood quicker the madness of asking our schools to fully reopen when those in other areas with lower infection rates were being told to delay,” says Harrow West MP Gareth Thomas. “I hope they have learnt some lessons from this episode”. 

The next point of contention is the roll-out of testing at secondary schools, announced on the last day of the last school term, which is to take place from 11 January in preparation of a return of pupils currently scheduled for the following week. Council leaders who spoke to On London are as one in calling for sufficient resource in terms of both funding and staffing to accomplish this. Athwal recalls his alarm at one Whitehall official’s suggestion that teachers could conduct testing in their classrooms, squeezing it in before the start of the school day.

Georgia Gould, who says Camden has redeployed more than 190 staff to carry out testing, stresses the importance of spare capacity for testing in schools and adds she “can’t emphasise enough” the need for priority vaccination of staff  – another huge challenge, requiring deft mastery of both logistics and politics, to be met before we’re even halfway through the first month of the new year.

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