How the government’s approach to schools unravelled over three weeks

Danny Thorpe
© Bart Lenoir/Shutterstock.com

If a week is a long time in politics, I’m not sure how to describe the last three. It was three weeks ago that the Secretary of State for Education issued a legal directive to Greenwich Council, the first in the country, to keep schools open to all children, despite the rising rates of infection in my borough, the hundreds of staff we had in self-isolation and the thousands of children across Greenwich who were already off school.

We did not actually ask schools to close but asked them to return to the same model we had earlier in the year: vulnerable pupils and key worker children in school, everyone else learning remotely. Three weeks to the day and the government has not only done exactly that, but has also announced that ministers “do not think it is possible for all exams in the summer to go ahead as planned”. As the guidance hasn’t been published, we know nothing more at this stage. I can’t begin to imagine what this news must feel like to those pupils in Year 11 and 13, and we will do our best to find out more as quickly as possible. But what a truly dreadful state of affairs.

On the day that Gavin Williamson launched his legal threat, Covid cases in Greenwich were rising. We were at 254 known cases per 100,000 residents. That number has now gone up, and we are over the 900 mark. Evidence, if ever it were needed, that the exponential growth we were warning about three weeks ago has manifested itself into unimaginable numbers, certainly the highest we have ever had in my borough. The graphs that adorn front pages and social media posts across the land show we are not alone.

Three weeks on, we have seen the complete unravelling of the government’s approach to schools. Their actions during this period have led to a complete collapse in confidence amongst teachers, unions, headteachers, parents, carers and councils across the country.

Over the weekend, councils and communities alike were forced into unprecedented action, which could have been avoided if people understood what the strategy was for keeping schools open and supporting them during these incredibly challenging times. On Sunday morning, the Prime Minister told the country that “schools are safe” and everyone should send their children back in the morning, assuming they were open. But by Monday night, he had changed the message to say that schools are in fact “vectors for transmission” and the first half term of spring was off.

It was well-documented that when the government threatened Greenwich with legal action for trying to move to a mixed model of learning, Eton had already closed in mid-December and a number of schools across the country were in a similar position.

This varying approach to schools was highlighted more clearly when, with only one full working day to go before the start of term, the Secretary of State announced to parliament that a ‘small number’ of pupils would not be returning as planned. As he opted not to publish a list at the time (let alone have any pre-engagement to let us know as leaders what was coming), it was with a sense of absolute bewilderment and confusion that I learnt some time later that Greenwich schools were expected to open, whilst our neighbouring boroughs in Bexley and Bromley were closed.

22 London boroughs were advised to close, but the rationale for this decision simply didn’t make sense. A cursory glance at the list suggested that it couldn’t have been infection rates, as boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea were closed but we were open. Suggestions were then made that it was about the rate at which Covid was spreading, but it was clear that Greenwich was a borough where the weekly change in rates was going up, not down.

Another suggestion was made that hospital pressures were a factor, but that was even more perplexing as our local trust, the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS, trust had just declared a major incident in the face of rising pressure. And given our hospital facilities are shared with Bexley, it was clear that the rationale for which areas were on the contingency framework and those that weren’t simply didn’t make sense.

Alongside leaders from Camden, Hackney, Haringey, Harrow, Islington, Kingston, Lambeth and Lewisham, as well as the City of London Corporation, we endeavoured to get the answers we needed. We worked together to get a response to the DfE that would bring to light just how these decisions had been made.

We received a letter from the Secretary of State as 22.55 on New Year’s Eve to reaffirm the basis for the decision. “We work closely with PHE, the NHS, with DHSC and across government to monitor the number of new infections, positivity rates, and pressures on the NHS. Decisions have been made by ministers on this basis whilst balancing a desire to keep as many children as possible in school.” But again, it was clear that this simply didn’t stand up to scrutiny or interrogation. It was a complex and challenging few hours. (For those interested, Joshua Niecho from OnLondon.co.uk has written extensively about it.)

It was less than 24 hours into the new year that the first U-turn of 2020 happened, with the government finally conceding that all London boroughs would be treated as one. Whilst we were grateful for the change, having worked collectively across the city since March, that decision now triggered a tsunami of action across the country. Action by councils (of varying political colours), from Cumbria to Southampton, and many in between, who have had to step up and show leadership where the government has failed.

Communities simply didn’t understand why places that were classified in the same tier were being treated differently. So far, the government has failed to explain it, and nobody seems clear about the data sets that were used to inform the contingency framework.

Three weeks after that legal threat, we are here. Despite the usual bile being spouted, I know of not one teacher, support worker or headteacher who doesn’t want children in school. I spent Monday morning visiting our local testing centre, set up by the council for staff and pupils in our area, where we had tested over 1,600 Greenwich pupils and teachers over the previous 48 hours. I then joined school leaders from both primary and secondary schools in Greenwich, who spent the weekend trying to hold it together for staff, parents and pupils. Added to that, many spent the last two weeks of their Christmas holidays trying to quickly create plans for a mass testing system they will no longer need for at least the next six weeks.

This simply cannot continue. This morning, one of my Greenwich headteachers wrote this in her weekly blog: “I know that children and teachers don’t come very high in the government’s priorities but it has to be possible to do better than this. Shouting at schools through a megaphone then running off and hiding behind a curtain for a few days, releasing the press attack-dogs when the unions patiently explain why it can’t be done that way then bellowing another, contradictory, muffled message a couple of days later that has to be reacted to all over again is not good for any of us”.

This is a sentiment that I imagine pervaded many front rooms up and down the country last night. Whilst it is clear that the public overwhelmingly support tighter restrictions to get this virus under control, a recent poll showed that nearly two thirds of people think the government has handled this pandemic badly – a figure that will no doubt increase as a result of the last 24 hours.

It is almost a year since the Prime Minister visited our borough (sadly, I wasn’t invited) and delivered his famous Brexit speech at the Old Royal Naval College. “This is the moment for us to think of our past and go up a gear again.” I encourage him to do the same. The past year has been a disaster for our schools. From exams to vouchers, from face masks to frameworks, we cannot continue like this any longer. Enough is enough.

Whilst there is no denying that Covid is the challenge of our lifetime, the answers to at least some of these problems we face right now are staring the government in the face. Work with councils. Work with schools, teachers, unions, work with anyone who is determined to deal with this almighty challenge. Working with us all to build a credible and comprehensive plan together, so we can restore trust amongst all of our communities, is the only way out of this mess.

Let’s build a plan that deals with the inequalities that this pandemic is creating, a plan that vaccinates all of our school staff and gets every single one of our children and young people back in their classrooms as quickly as possible.

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