All primary schools in London are set to close for the start of the new term after the government bowed to protests and legal pressure from the capital’s local authorities.
The U-turn comes after the government initially named 50 education authorities in the south of England, including many of those in and around London, where primary schools would be closed to most pupils for the first two weeks of term.
But the list omitted several London areas where Covid-19 transmission rates remain high including the borough of Haringey, whose leaders said they was prepared to defy the government and support any schools that decided to close to protect staff and pupils.
The protests from local authority leaders came to a head with a letter to education secretary, Gavin Williamson, from nine London authorities, including Islington, Lambeth and the City of London, asking for their primary schools to be closed and suggesting they were prepared to take legal action.
The action provoked an emergency Cabinet Office meeting on New Year’s Day, which signed off on the revision, adding the remaining 10 London education authorities to the government’s contingency areas.
Richard Watts, the leader of Islington council, said: “I’m very relieved to hear this news. There was enormous concern from parents and schools who couldn’t understand the rationale for why some boroughs were excluded.”
“We welcome that the government has, belated, listened to local areas. We will be working with our schools to ensure they offer high quality online learning and can welcome pupils back as soon as Public Health deem it to be sensible.”
But the decision leaves question marks hanging over the government’s decision-making, and stands as a further humiliating reverse for Williamson in his tenure as education secretary.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Just at the moment when we need some decisive leadership, the government is at sixes and sevens.
“There is no clear rationale for why some schools are being closed and others are not and why primaries and special schools are being treated differently to secondaries.
“The government appears to be following neither the science nor the advice of education professionals on how best to preserve the quality of education for young people. The government cannot expect to command public confidence with such a confusing and last-minute approach.”
The Department for Education and No 10 were approached for comment.
Several local authorities were preparing legal challenges to keep primary schools closed to most pupils next week despite not being in the list of 50 “contingency areas” named by the government.
“We ask in the strongest possible terms that your recommendation is urgently reviewed and that our primary schools are added to the list of those that are advised to move learning online, other than for vulnerable children and those of key workers, until 18 January, so that together we can help stop the spread of coronavirus and save lives.
“We are advised by leading counsel that the omissions from the list are unlawful on a number of grounds and can be challenged in court,” the letter from the nine London authorities to Williamson, signed by nine authority leaders, states.
Primary school heads in London report that they are facing staff shortages since the Christmas break because of the spread of Covid-19 and its more infectious variant B117.
Meanwhile, the government faces a further rebellion from secondary school leaders in England over its demand that testing pupils is to be mandatory from 11 January.
School leaders and teaching unions have been meeting over the New Year period to discuss a joint response to the demand, with many heads arguing that the testing regime is impractical and unworkable.