Government threatens headteachers with action under Coronavirus Act over online lessons

14 Dec 2020 By Imogen Proud

Schools minister Nick Gibb is reported to have written to headteachers who were planning to move to online teaching for the last week of term, threatening to order that they keep schools open.

Some headteachers had been planning to switch to remote learning for the final week before the Christmas holidays to remove the risk of pupils needing to self-isolate on Christmas day should there be positive Coronavirus cases in their school in the last week of term.

The Department for Education said it was prepared to use emergency powers under Schedule 17 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 in order to keep schools open for face-to-face learning. This schedule empowers the Secretary of State to give a temporary continuity direction to one (or more) named institution(s) in England, requiring that the institution take the steps specified in the direction (paragraph 1(2)). Nick Gibb, in last week’s letter, said he was “minded” to direct relevant boards of trustees to keep school gates open. There is no doubt that requiring a school to stay open is one of the permitted outcomes which a temporary continuity direction may require (see paragraph 1(4)(b)).

Room for difference of opinion enters with the requirement that, before giving a direction, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that giving the direction is necessary and proportionate (paragraph 1(3)(b)). School leaders may point to the fact that children may have been absent from school in large numbers in preceding weeks due to confirmed cases at the school, and the risk of positive cases in the final week of term may on that basis be predicted to be high. They may argue that, in those circumstances, it is disproportionate to require that schools be open for a further week in lieu of children learning online, when considered against the harm this could cause to many pupils’ – and their families’ – Christmas plans. The debate thus centres on a judgment call weighing the additional benefit of face-to-face learning as compared to online teaching for 5 days as compared to the mental health and other advantages pupils would gain from seeing friends and relatives – within the limits of applicable lockdown regulations – over the Christmas period. Much would seem to depend upon the quality of the alternative online provision being offered and the extent to which pupils would be able and willing to engage with online lessons.

This story was covered by the Guardian.