Keeping every London primary school closed a ‘last resort’, says Williamson

Patrick Daly, PA Political Correspondent
·4-min read

All London primary schools will remain shut next week, the Education Secretary has confirmed, as the capital battles with high levels of coronavirus infections.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the U-turn after previously expressing dismay at the “ridiculous” Government decision to order some pupils in the capital to return to their classrooms next week despite the city being in the grip of a fresh wave of Covid transmissions.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the decision to close all London primary schools had been a “last resort”.

Mr Khan said: “It is good news that the Government has finally seen sense and announced this U-turn.

“The Government’s original decision was ridiculous and has been causing immense confusion for parents, teachers and staff across the capital.

“It is right that all schools in London are treated the same, and that no primary schools in London will be forced to open on Monday.

“I would like to thank Nick Gibb, the education minister, for engaging with me in constructive conversations over the past two days.

“No one wants our children out of schools longer than necessary. Everybody must now focus on bearing down on the virus so that our schools can reopen safely as soon as possible.”

From Monday January 4, London primary schools will be required to provide remote learning for two weeks to all children except vulnerable and critical worker children, who will be permitted to continue to attend.

Under the Government’s initial plan, secondary schools and colleges were set to be closed to most pupils for the first two weeks of January, while primary schools within 50 local authorities in London and the south of England were also told to keep their doors shut until January 18.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has welcomed the decision to keep schools shut
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has welcomed the decision to keep schools shut (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

But in a reversal of those primary school proposals, Cabinet minister Mr Williamson said: “Moving further parts of London to remote education really is a last resort and a temporary solution.

“As infection rates rise across the country, and particularly in London, we must make this move to protect our country and the NHS.

“We will continue keep the list of local authorities under review, and reopen classrooms as soon as we possibly can.”

Leaders of eight London boroughs had written to the Education Secretary formally asking him to reverse the decision to reopen primary schools in selected areas.

They pointed out that some local authority areas on the closure list had lower infection rates than those where schools had been told to reopen.

According to Covid rates compiled by the PA news agency, Greenwich – which was not on the closure list – had 2,176 new cases recorded in the seven days to December 26 compared to list-featuring Kensington and Chelsea’s 768 new cases in the same period.

The leaders of the boroughs of Islington, Camden, Hackney, Lambeth, Lewisham, Greenwich, Haringey and Harrow all signed the letter.

On December 15, Greenwich was forced to withdraw advice asking schools to switch to online learning amid rising coronavirus rates following threats of legal action by the Education Secretary.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the last-minute nature of the London schools decision had caused “huge stress” for pupils, families and staff, with only a matter of days to go before the new term was due to commence.

Councillor Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council – which was threatened with legal action by the Government last month after it proposed switching to online teaching – said it was “unacceptable” that the decision had been taken so late.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the announcement affecting London should also apply to the rest of the country.

“What is right for London is right for the rest of the country,” she said.

“It is time for the Government to protect its citizens, and in particular its children, by shutting all primary schools for two weeks in order for the situation to be properly assessed, schools made much safer and children and their families protected.”