All London primary schools to remain closed for start of term in government U-turn

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All London primary schools will now be closed at the start of term for most pupils.

It comes two days after the government said only those in 22 of London's 32 boroughs would be affected by closures amid surging COVID-19 rates in the capital.

Earlier, the leaders of eight London boroughs called on the government to make a U-turn as they were "struggling to understand the rationale" behind the move.

Full list of areas where primary schools face delayed return

The U-turn means around a million pupils aged between four and 11 will face remote learning from Monday, after youngsters in 27 other local authorities outside the capital were told on Wednesday they would be taught online for an indefinite period.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the decision about when they could return to school would be reviewed by 18 January.

The only pupils that are allowed to attend primary schools in designated areas under the government's contingency framework are those who are vulnerable or the children of key workers.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: "In light of COVID case rates rising rapidly across the capital and ongoing engagement with London leaders and the evidence submitted, the government has reviewed the London boroughs where the contingency framework will apply, with all further boroughs added.

"Due to the fast moving situation, and where local conditions are changing rapidly, the review of London boroughs was brought forward for a decision today as part of the contingency framework process."

The move wasn't enough for at least one of the teaching unions, which called on the government to go further, with primary pupils in dozens of other Tier 4 local authority areas able to return to school this week.

On Wednesday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said all exam year secondary students would return on 11 January, and all other secondary school students following a week later on 18 January, to enable preparations for the testing of pupils and staff to take place.

Apart from the affected primary pupils in London and the South East, all other primary age youngsters are due to return to school at the start of term in a few days.

The National Education Union said in a Twitter statement: "Thanks to @sadiqkhan @georgiagould @londoncouncils and all those who lobbied for the government to do the right thing in London. Now @GavinWilliamson must delay school opening nationwide to reduce transmission, support our NHS and #protectourcommunities"

Labour's shadow education secretary Kate Green said the last-minute nature of the decision had caused "huge stress" for pupils, families and staff.

She 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."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said: "Just at the moment when we need some decisive leadership, the government is at sixes and sevens.

"The government cannot expect to command public confidence with such a confusing and last-minute approach."

The leaders of the eight boroughs who wrote to Mr Williamson asking to him to reverse the decision pointed out that COVID-19 infection rates were higher in some boroughs told to reopen schools than in others where they would have remained closed.

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

They are eight of the 10 boroughs, along with the City of London and Kingston, where schools will now close.

Danny Thorpe, leader of Labour-controlled Greenwich, which was threatened with legal action by the government after issuing advice to schools to move to online learning for the last few days before Christmas, said before the U-turn: "In a case-by-case comparison, there appears to be no logic to how this list was brought together."

He highlighted that Kensington and Chelsea "has one of the lowest infection rates of 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".

The announcement that all London primary schools will remain closed is the latest in a string of U-turns performed by Mr Williamson since the pandemic began.

Others include:

  • Mr Williamson initially set out ambitions that all primary-age children would return to school for at least four weeks before the summer break but later scrapped those plans

  • Following pressure from a campaign headed by England footballer Marcus Rashford, the government reversed its decision not to extend the children's food voucher scheme into the summer holidays

  • The policy that children should not be required to wear face coverings while in school was reversed by the Department for Education in August

  • After criticism from students and headteachers and a backlash by Tory MPs, the government decided A-levels and GCSEs would no longer be graded by a controversial algorithm