The cross-party body representing all 33 of the capital’s local authorities has called on the government to stop excluding its members from decisions about when London’s schools should be open or closed during the pandemic following a dramatic U-turn by over the re-opening of primary schools yesterday evening.
In a statement, London Councils chair Georgia Gould welcomed the government’s last-minute announcement that all the capital’s primary schools will remain closed for a further two weeks as Covid-19 infection rates across the city rise, but added, “It is essential for the sake of our children’s education and public health that there is a clear and consistent rationale for the closure and opening of our schools, which is based upon public health advice.”
Stressing the importance of “transparency” in building public confidence in the safety of the education system, Gould said: “We are asking government to work openly with us as local leaders on any future decisions and support schools getting back as quickly as possible by continuing to support the rapid rollout of testing in schools, and prioritising school staff for vaccinations.”
The government U-turn followed intensive lobbying by some borough leaders and London MPs after education secretary Gavin Williamson announced in the Commons last Wednesday that most primary schools in England would re-open on Monday, 4 January. His department then disclosed that those in 22 of London’s 32 boroughs would not do so. Redbridge was later added to the list having reportedly been excluded in error and following pressure from council leader Jas Athwal.
The reason for treating the 23 boroughs differently from the remaining nine and the City of London Corporation – the capital’s other local authority – was not made clear, with ministers declining interview requests and the Department for Education saying only that areas in England subject to what it calls its “contingency framework” for deciding which would reopen schools at later dates were chosen following “close work” with Public Health England, the NHS, the Joint Bioscurity Centre and “across government”.
Borough leaders expressed bewilderment about the criteria used, with Greenwich leader Dan Thorpe querying why schools in his borough were expected to open on 4 January and those in Kensington & Chelsea were not when Covid-19 transmission rates in Greenwich were far higher.
Before Christmas, Thorpe had told Greenwich schools that they should close early but drew back after Williamson threatened legal action to keep them open. Barking & Dagenham leader Darren Rodwell, who is also London Councils vice chair, complained of the government again “not talking/working with us. As usual, hard pressed school staff have to hear it on the news”.
In his Commons statement, Williamson also said that secondary schools across most of England will not fully reopen until 18 January, with exam-year students starting back on the 11th. This was a change from the previous government plan for a staggered approach to secondaries to start earlier, and in line with calls by Sadiq Khan and others to put back secondaries’ return date to later in the month.
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