School leaders and local authorities have demanded the government explain its decisions over which primary schools should stay open in England, as the opposition accused the education secretary of “serial incompetence” over the patchwork of school closures.
Haringey council in north London said on Thursday night that it was advising its primaries to close to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers despite it not being in the government’s “contingency framework” areas where primaries had been told to shut.
A day earlier the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, revealed that secondary schools and colleges would be closed to most pupils for the first two weeks of January. His instruction that primary schools also remain closed within 50 local authorities in London and the south of England shocked many parents. The ruling, which covers nearly a third of England’s 152 education authorities, is in place until 18 January, when the government said it would review their status.
But council and school leaders complain they have been left in the dark over why the “contingency framework” areas were chosen or how future decisions will be made.
In a letter, the leader of Haringey, Joseph Ejiofor, said: “At the current time, when infection rates in parts of London with lower rates than Haringey are deemed by the government too high to allow children and staff to return, it cannot be safe for children and teaching staff in Haringey to do so. Consequently, we believe that all primary schools in Haringey should therefore open only to the children of key workers and vulnerable children next week and we will support all our schools in this approach.”
Haringey and other London boroughs which have been told to keep their primary schools open have written to Williamson asking him to reverse the decision.
Danny Thorpe, the leader of Greenwich borough in south-east London, said: “There appears to be no logic to how this list was brought together. Kensington and Chelsea has one of the lowest infection rates for the whole of the capital, yet their children and young people are being afforded the extra protection that apparently Greenwich students don’t need.”
The government’s order will close primary schools in the City of Westminster, where infection rates are among the lowest in London, while leaving those in Hackney, Greenwich and Lambeth open despite infection rates being higher.
The government has given few details on how it reached its decision. MPs were told in a briefing this week that infection rates, hospital capacity and “speed of transmission” were taken into account.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Decisions on which areas will be subject to the contingency framework are based on close work with Public Health England, the NHS, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and across government to monitor the number of new infections, positivity rates, and pressures on the NHS.
“These measures will be reviewed every two weeks, and we hope they will be in place for the shortest period possible.”
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said Williamson “must end the serial incompetence and urgently clarify how many schools are closing, how many more are at risk, and provide a clear path to reopening for all schools affected.
“With just four days to go parents and pupils are confused about the start of term with dedicated school and college staff again being left to pick up the pieces.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said his union would be formally asking the government to explain its decisions.
“There is obviously a huge amount of concern over how it can be safe for schools in some tier 4 areas to open while schools in other tier 4 areas are being told to move to remote learning. In some instances this means different approaches for schools only a few roads away from each other,” Whiteman said.
The teaching unions are likely to welcome a recommendation from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies for face masks to be worn in education settings.
A new Sage document considering the risks from the new Covid B117 variant said that “enhanced mitigation measures are likely to be necessary including … reinforcing the importance of using face coverings, including in settings where they are not currently mandated, such as education, workplaces, and crowded outdoor spaces”.
The government also toughened its stance on in-school Covid-19 testing, making it mandatory for secondary schools and colleges to test all students at the start of term after having previously said it would be optional.
But many heads say they will struggle to do so in the time available. One, speaking anonymously, said the unreliability of self-administered lateral flow tests being provided by the government “would, in all probability, allow for increased transmission in schools”.
“I have no spare staff resource for this purpose and, even if I did, I would view it as a gross misuse of manpower,” he added.
Geoff Barton, leader of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The government needs to remember that schools and colleges are educational institutions, not medical facilities. It should ensure they are properly supported, not use legal powers to try to bludgeon through unworkable policies.”