London parents and children in limbo as schools chaos sweeps capital

‘It’s easy to call for school closures and forget the price children pay’: Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman blasts London’s three Labour councils for cancelling classes early and leaving parents in childcare chaos

  • Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has been accused of ‘an appalling lack of leadership’
  • Parents in a panic after learning news on Twitter saying they ‘can’t magic childcare overnight’
  • Labour-run Islington and Waltham Forest are also looking to close schools before the end of term 
  • Sadiq Khan believes that schools should also return later in January if there is no mass testing in schools
  • Government source told MailOnline that the decision has more than a ‘whiff of political opportunism’  

London parents and children are in limbo today after the Government became locked in a fierce battle with Labour councils and education unions in an effort to keep schools open. 

The end of term in the capital is in complete chaos after three left-wing local authorities, Greenwich, Islington and Waltham Forest, all backed by Mayor Sadiq Khan, decided to shut all their schools amid growing coronavirus cases. 

Families have been scrambling to organise childcare with less than 24 hours’ notice amid growing fears among millions of London parents that all the capital’s 20 Labour-run councils could follow suit. Critics have accused officials of abandoning children after a year of massive disruption to their schooling and questions over the quality of online teaching they receive.  

Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman sided with the Government today and said: ‘It’s so easy to call for closures and forget the long term price that children pay. Just to put it in context, one day of national school closure that works out at about 40,000 child years of education in total, and my concern really is obviously about children here’.

The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson last night used the Coronavirus Act to force schools in a London borough to remain open against the wishes of the local council. Mr Williamson told Greenwich to withdraw letters announcing that schools were shutting by 10am today.

If they fail to do so, Mr Williamson can apply for a court order. Disobeying it could put the council in contempt.

But last night Danny Thorpe, leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, said it was too late to reopen schools. He said: ‘We are in the process of seeking legal advice and will respond to the Government. We have alerted schools… but given we received this notification just before 5pm, it was impossible to ask schools to change any of the arrangements they have in place for Tuesday.’

Greenwich’s council leader Danny Thorpe has told all schools in the south-east London borough to close from Monday evening as he warned its Covid-19 situation was ‘escalating extremely quickly’. The infection rate per 100,000 people in the capital stood at 191.8 on December 6, up from 158.1 the previous week. Pictured: London infection rates by borough week to December 6

The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson last night used the Coronavirus Act to force schools in a London borough to remain open against the wishes of the local council. But last night Danny Thorpe, leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, said it was too late to reopen schools.

In north London, Islington Council told its schools to shut from Tuesday evening and not to reopen until January 11. Meanwhile Waltham Forest Council, in east London, also said last night that it was ‘recommending that all schools move to online learning’.

Since schools break up on Thursday, there would appear to little time for the dispute to be resolved before the it becomes moot. 

Sadiq Khan declared London schools should close early and open later in January if mass testing is not available

The Department for Education (DfE) has written to all Greenwich and Islington schools in light of the statements from the councils.

But heads have been calling for more flexibility to end in-person teaching earlier to reduce the risk of pupils and staff having to isolate over Christmas.  

Last night marked the first ever use of a measure called a Temporary Continuity Direction under the Coronavirus Act.

‘It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools… to close their doors,’ said Mr Williamson.

‘Schools and colleges up and down the country have shown incredible resilience in the face of this pandemic – and it’s down to the hard work of teachers and staff that millions of children and young people have been able to benefit from a face-to-face education and be with their friends.

‘I have always been clear that using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority.

‘That’s why I won’t hesitate to do what is right for young people and have issued a direction to Greenwich Council setting out that they must withdraw the letter issued to headteachers on Sunday.’ 

On Sunday, council leaders in Labour-run Greenwich, south-east London, became the first to advise schools to close and switch to remote learning amid a rise in coronavirus cases.

They were followed yesterday by local authority chiefs in Islington, north London, and then Waltham Forest, in east London. In In Basildon in Essex, meanwhile, nearly all secondary schools have already moved to full remote education.

Education officials had been urging schools to ignore demands from the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and local authority leaders to close their doors until January – despite the capital heading into Tier Three restrictions.

Mr Khan called on the Government to consider closing all secondary schools and colleges in the capital. The rise in cases among ten to 19-year-old children has been identified as a major reason for the surge in cases in the South East.

However, No 10 said the Prime Minister wanted ‘all schools and colleges to remain open until the end of term on Thursday’. 

One senior government source told MailOnline that the intervention from Sadiq Khan and two Labour-run councils, backed by the teaching unions, had more than a ‘whiff of political opportunism’.  


Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said the union is ‘pleased’ with Mr Khan’s demands for early school closures and more testing for pupils.

Mr Courtney added: ‘We strongly welcome the decision by Greenwich Council to urge all of its schools to close from Monday evening, to all except vulnerable children and the children of key workers. We urge other councils to take the same decision.

Mothers Debbie Cooper (left) and Griselda ZIko (right), both 35, outside Eltham CofE Primary School in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, South East London, today. Greenwich Council demanded that all the borough’s 133 schools should shut from this evening

‘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.’

Asked about Sir Keir’s call for schools to stay open, Mr Khan told Sky News: ‘It’s very reluctantly that I’m saying to the Government they need to provide urgent guidance on our schools, because some schools aren’t Covid safe.

‘When you speak to the children, the parents, the teachers, the staff, they all tell you their concern about their establishments – whether it’s a school or an FE college – being a place where the virus is accelerating.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ‘It is deeply unfair on school leaders, teachers, families and pupils that they are caught between the heavy-handed approach of central government and increasing alarm at local infection rates.’

He added: ‘Although it is now incredibly late in the day, the Government must remove the threat of legal action and allow schools to make the decisions they need to make on behalf of their staff and children.

‘In the future, it must allow for more nuanced responses to local infection rates and the huge disruption affecting many schools rather than insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach’. 

What are the Tier 3 rules? 

  • Indoor entertainment venues such as cinemas, theatres and bowling alleys must close;
  • Pubs, restaurants and cafes must close except for takeaway;
  • Shops and hairdressers and salons will be allowed to remain open; 
  • Groups of six will be allowed to meet outdoors only; 
  • Crowds at live events will be banned;
  • People should avoid travelling out of, or into, Tier 3 areas unless it is unavoidable;
  • People from separate households cannot meet indoors and the rule of six applies outside. 

One school worker in the borough said: ‘This has created a huge amount of confusion for parents. Schools will have 100’s of emails & calls to deal with tomorrow morning, adding to their already high workload and pressure’. Another wrote: ‘This is a disaster for families in Royal Greenwich. Schools should be the last thing to close. Please could you provide the evidence you have used to come to this awful decision?’

Historic Greenwich is one of the busiest tourist spots in the capital, and is a magnet for shoppers and drinkers.

One critic said: ‘Massive double standards at play. The pubs have been open all w/e – zero social distancing in Greenwich town centre…… then a Sunday evening ‘tweet’ to shut schools early within 24hrs’. Another parent said: ‘Some of us cannot master magic childcare over night that is not what we normally use. Not all of us can use family right now either’. 

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