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U-turn as government says Camden primary schools won’t reopen on Monday

Schools had been set to reopen on January 4 - despite nearby boroughs' staying closed due to Covid fears

01 January, 2021 — By Harry Taylor

Education secretary Gavin Williamson

Primary schools in Camden won’t reopen as planned on Monday, as the Department for Education (DfE) has said all primaries in London will have to stay closed until January 18.

A government decision before New Year had sparked anger and confusion from councils and union officials, as some boroughs were given different orders ahead of January 4. Schools in Camden and Islington were told to reopen, while in neighbouring Westminster, Brent and Barnet they were to stay closed.

Now, according to the Guardian, the government has changed its mind after an emergency meeting on New Year’s Day, ordering a blanket closure across London.

In a statement, education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Children’s education and wellbeing remains a national priority. 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.”

It’s understood that on Friday afternoon senior councillors were weighing up whether the government’s decision could be legally challenged.

The day before, Camden’s leader Georgia Gould, along with leaders of eight other London boroughs wrote to Mr Williamson asking for schools in their boroughs to remain closed. Before Christmas ministers had threatened to take councils to court that tried to close schools early.

Responding to the news, Cllr Gould said: “I am pleased the government have acknowledged the value of local knowledge and local schools leadership and included all London boroughs within the contingency framework. This means primary schools across London will close from January 4 to 18. I recognise this decision has a huge impact for students, parents, teachers and communities – calling for the closure of schools is not something we would ever do lightly, but rising infection rates mean that the situation is now critical.

 “It is essential, for the sake of our children’s education and for public health, that there is a clear and consistent rationale for the closure and opening of our schools, based on public health advice. Rising infection rates across London and Camden, and the impact on NHS capacity, has caused anxiety for students, schools, parents and communities. This is why we worked with leaders across the city to challenge the Government decision to not include some London boroughs.

She said that the council believed current infection rates meant it would not be safe for students or parents to open schools on Monday. They will stay open for vulnerable children and those of key workers.

“I recognise that for many parents and children this will be deeply disappointing, and I want to reiterate my commitment to keeping children in school as far as possible where it is safe to do so,” she said.

Speaking at the time, Gerald Clark, secretary of Camden’s National Education Union branch said the decision was: “entirely without rationale”.

Secretary of Camden’s National Education Union (NEU) branch, Gerald Clark called for Mr Williamson to resign. He said : “[We are] pleased that the government has recognised the impossibility and irrationality of its decision.  It made no sense to ask children from neighbouring boroughs to stay at home and insist that children from Camden should go in to school.  Hopefully the next couple of weeks will see a reduction in infection rates that will mean all London children and staff feel more comfortable resuming lessons in school later in the month.

“We are clearer than we’ve ever been that Gavin Williamson should go.  His last-minute decision making and frankly chaos, has become a hallmark of his time as secretary of state for education.  He has put school leaders, staff and council leaders in an impossible position and wasted many precious hours of their holidays, only to revert to what was always the inevitable pragmatic outcome.”

Secondary schools will stay closed, as planned, until the middle of January. Exam year students will return on January 11, while other secondary-aged pupils will go back to face-to-face classroom learning a week after that.

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