The government is using its emergency powers under the Coronavirus Act to threaten to use legal action against headteachers in England who want to allow their pupils to learn remotely in the run-up to Christmas.
The Observer understands any schools that were planning to move most of their teaching online during the last week of term, to ensure none of their pupils would have to self-isolate on Christmas Day, are being ordered to remain open.
One headteacher in Hertfordshire was sent an official letter last week from the schools minister, Nick Gibb, warning him that the government was prepared to deploy its new powers under the act to ensure his secondary school remained open for all pupils until Friday.
The school, Presdales in Ware, was planning to teach the majority of its pupils remotely for the last week of term, while continuing to provide socially distanced, face-to-face lessons for vulnerable pupils, children who need extra support and any other students who wished to come into school. Only about 25 pupils were expected to come in, so they could all sit 2 metres away from each other in class.
“We’ve had nearly 50 [positive] cases since September and a significant outbreak in one year group,” said the headteacher, Matthew Warren. “There is no chance, in the last week of term, that we’re not going to have any cases.”
On Tuesday last week, 170 staff and children – including half the English department – were off school, self isolating. Warren said he and and his senior team were now “dreading” having to call parents, particularly of younger pupils, to tell them their child would have to avoid all contact with anybody else on Christmas Day.
Warren had been keen to ensure his pupils did not have to endure this separation during the festive season. “For mental health, hearts and minds, we felt it wasn’t fair – and parents supported us overwhelmingly.”
Last Wednesday, the day before the school planned to close, Gibb wrote a letter to Warren, stating he was “minded to direct” the board of trustees to keep the school gates open and had the power to do this under schedule 17 of the Coronavirus Act. Refusal to comply would have allowed the Department for Education to first direct the board of trustees and then seek a court injunction requiring the school to provide face-to-face lessons, according to legal advice Warren received.
“We can’t defend that – it’s not a good use of public funds, which we’re desperate for,” he said.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the government’s relaxation of social mixing rules over Christmas had put schools and parents between a rock and hard place, accusing ministers of “pretending to be oblivious to the consequences of their decision”.
“We are calling for the government to give schools the flexibility to work with parents and make arrangements that best suit their individual circumstances. Giving schools the flexibility to switch to remote learning for the final few days of term seems an obvious and straightforward solution. The government’s position is creating huge potential for a chaotic and disruptive end to this term.”
There is regional variation across the UK in the guidance being given to schools. Last week, in Wales, all secondary schools and colleges were told to close their doors and move all lessons online from Monday.
A Department for Education spokesperson said it was a national priority to keep education settings open full time and it was vital that children remained in school until the end of term. “Schools, colleges and early years settings across the country have worked tremendously hard to put protective measures in place that are helping reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted and our regional school commissioner teams continue to support local authorities and school trusts to remain open and help resolve any operational issues.”
The Observer also understands that the government is considering mass testing of primary school children, following a decision to roll out mass testing of secondary school pupils in London, Kent and Essex last week. The Department for Education said it would not be commenting on this matter: “It hasn’t been confirmed and therefore is speculation.”