In a major government U-turn, all London primary schools are set to remain closed as Covid-19 cases continue to rise.
It comes after the Education Secretary said only on Thursday that he is “absolutely confident” there will be no further delays to school reopenings, after soaring coronavirus case rates in December forced the Government into a U-turn in pushing back the start of terms for millions of pupils.
Gavin Williamson moved to reassure teaching staff, pupils and parents the newly rescheduled staggered return dates for England would remain in place, despite concerns about safety and transmission rates among younger people.
ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand reports that Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, has said Mr Williamson has now “lost the confidence of teachers and parents” and remaining in his post now looks “very difficult”.
Mr Williamson said the decision to close all London primary schools had been a “last resort”.
The move is expected to see similar arrangements to the spring lockdown when schools continued to accept children from key worker families but moved to online learning for the vast majority of pupils.
On Wednesday, the Government announced primary school pupils in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 will not return to their desks as planned next week, with students in exam years returning to secondary schools a week later than planned, from January 11, while other secondary and college students will go back full-time on January 18.
But the Education Secretary is expected to announce another change in policy on Friday night, following pressure from council leaders.
How many other U-turns have been made during the pandemic? ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand explains
London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the U-turn after previously expressing dismay at the “ridiculous” decision.
Leaders of eight London boroughs had written to Mr Williamson on Thursday formally asking him to reverse the decision to reopen primary schools in selected areas. In the letter the leaders said they were “struggling to understand the rationale” behind a move that ignored “the interconnectedness of our city”.
They pointed out that Covid-19 infection rates were higher in some boroughs told to reopen schools than in others where schools will remain shut.
In their letter, the council leaders also said they had received legal advice that omitting some councils from the list of areas told to take teaching online “is unlawful on a number of grounds and can be challenged in court”. The leaders of the boroughs of Islington, Camden, Hackney, Lambeth, Lewisham, Greenwich, Haringey and Harrow all signed the letter. Schools in the City of London and Kingston were also to reopen under the government plans but those in 22 other London boroughs would remain closed.
Danny Thorpe, leader of Labour-controlled Greenwich, which was threatened with legal action by the Government before Christmas after issuing advice to schools to move to online learning for the last few days of term, said: “In a case-by-case comparison, there appears to be no logic to how this list was brought together.” He pointed out that Tory-controlled 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 Royal Greenwich students don’t need”.
Kate Green, Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, said: “This is yet another government u-turn creating chaos for parents just two days before the start of term.
"Gavin Williamson’s incompetent handling of the return of schools and colleges is creating huge stress for parents, pupils, and school and college staff and damaging children’s education.
“The government failed to get mass testing for schools and colleges in place when Labour called for it and they have failed to develop credible plans for remote learning when pupils cannot be in school.
“This u-turn was needed to provide consistency in London. However, Gavin Williamson must still clarify why some schools in tier 4 are closing and what the criteria for reopening will be.
"School and college staff urgently need reassurance that the government is putting proper support in place to make all schools Covid secure work environments.”