The schools dilemma facing councils as Covid cases rise ahead of Christmas

Elliot Chappell

Covid cases are doubling every seven days in some areas and the situation is particularly bad in London and the South East. Matt Hancock declared on Monday that there was “not a moment to spare” as he announced that the capital, along with parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, would enter Tier 3 on Wednesday. But the most recent estimates from the Office for National Statistics showed earlier this month that the prevalence of infection is highest among secondary school-age children. And, in their letter to the Prime Minister this week, London mayor Sadiq Khan and London Councils chair Georgia Gould pointed out that while the government can place London and other high-prevalence areas in Tier 3, this will do nothing to reduce transmission among this group with schools remaining open.

This rise in Covid cases has sparked growing concern over the planned relaxation of the restrictions during the Christmas period. Amid increasing disquiet over allowing three-household bubbles between December 23rd and 27th, the Health Service Journal and British Medical Journal today warned that the arrangements are a “rash decision” that will “cost many lives”. Keir Starmer has called for an “urgent review” of the rules and said “doing nothing is not really viable”.

But government has shown in recent days how determined it is for schools to remain open. When the Labour-led London local authority Greenwich asked schools to switch to online learning this week, the Education Secretary threatened legal action. Gavin Williamson wrote to the schools and his department issued the borough with a “temporary continuity notice” under the Coronavirus Act demanding the withdrawal of the council leader’s letter to headteachers advising them to close, and the council has since backed down. A split emerged within Labour, with some council leaders and the mayor calling for schools to close while the Labour leadership insisted that “schools should be the last thing to close”.

Local authorities are in a bind. Councils have a legal obligation to provide a suitable education for children, whether inside or outside school, under Section 19 of the Education Act 1996. While schools can close, and many are sending pupils home at an alarming rate, councils must ensure adequate online learning continues. Local authorities faced legal action earlier this year when schools were closed the first time. The Good Law Project argued that the reliance on remote learning was disadvantaging poorer children who could not access the lessons the government said should be provided online.

Councils, already operating on a shoestring budget after ten years of cuts, do not have the resources to provide additional support. The Good Law Project admitted this when starting its action. Meanwhile, the Department for Education told schools in October that their allocation of laptops, which the government promised to help their poorest and most vulnerable pupils learn remotely, would be slashed by up to 80%. One teacher in Essex revealed at the time that this meant an expected 129 laptops were reduced to just 29 and that one in every four students at his school do not have access to a device they can use to learn online at home.

There is no denying the disproportionate impact on poorer children. Research from the Nuffield Foundation found the most disadvantaged pupils were much less likely to engage with remote learning when schools closed earlier this year. Teachers in the most deprived schools reported 30% of pupils returning their last piece of work, compared to 49% of pupils in the least deprived schools. The survey also found 62% of vulnerable pupils, 58% with special educational needs, 52% eligible for pupil premium funding and 48% of young carers were less engaged. You can bet that private schools have much better tech for the students, but it’s also not just about access; issues like overcrowded housing have a huge impact.

Disruption to learning exists even while schools remain open, and while the extent of this is hard to know, estimates from the DfE and self-reporting from schools paint a stark picture. Latest departmental figures show that approximately 7-9% of pupils in state-funded settings did not attend school on December 10th for Covid-related reasons. This comes after an increase since half term in the number of schools reporting that they have had one or more pupils self-isolating, due to potential contact with a case inside the school, reaching a peak of 36% on November 19th. Crucially, this figure breaks down as 60% of state-funded secondaries and 21% of primaries having sent pupils home last week, with an average of 24 pupils in state secondaries isolating per confirmed Covid case. And this national level data reflects the situation in Greenwich, where the council leader said that on Friday 3,670 children were self-isolating, and an additional 580 children had to do so on Monday. Lessons revert to distanced learning for these students.

While councils struggle with this dilemma, the Tories are insisting on children in England sitting exams this year, unlike in Wales where the Labour government has cancelled them on the basis that it is “impossible to guarantee a level playing field”. As the number of Covid cases continues to grow and everyone prepares for a major relaxation to the Covid rules next week, it seems perverse to many that schools will stay open despite high levels of transmission in these settings. Pupils, mixing in schools with hundreds if not thousands of other children, in areas with high rates of Covid will be allowed in a matter of days to hug their elderly family members. Whether schools remain open or the bubbling plan is shelved, many feel something has to give.

This problem we have seen councils grappling with this week was wholly foreseeable. Boris Johnson unveiled his plans for Christmas at the end of November, with over a month to make arrangements for the upcoming increase in social mixing. Trade unions have been calling for weeks for schools to be allowed “go online” two weeks before the end of term to prevent families having to self-isolate over Christmas. Yet there has been no mitigation, apart from allowing to schools to close one day early, in the weeks leading up to this restrictions relaxation. After weeks of inaction, the government is now busy issuing legal threats and vilifying those local leaders who are moving to mitigate the consequences of Downing Street’s approach to the pandemic.

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