Last week, leaders of the Focus Trust announced all 15 of their schools would close on December 11 as opposed to the original planned date of December 18. This decision came following increasing fears over the number of families that could be forced to isolate over Christmas as a result of positive coronavirus cases. But the Government has been piling pressure on the Focus Trust to reverse their plan to shut a week earlier than planned.
Families with children at the Trust had initially been told that during the week children would be expected to continue their studies from home, but it was then decided the week would be considered a normal holiday.
The Department for Education quickly asked the Trust to review this decision, warning it “remains a national priority” to keep schools open full-time and “avoid further disruption to education”.
The Trust has now performed a significant u-turn, writing to parents to inform them schools will not be shutting a week early.
The Regional Schools Commissioner also told the Trust that under the recently introduced Coronavirus Act 2020, it could not change term dates for schools because of reasons related to COVID-19.
A request for two inset days at the end of term – instead of the five days’ holiday – has also been turned down.
Chair of the Trust Board Clive Davies, and the Trust’s chief executive Helen Rowland, said in a joint statement: “All of our decisions are taken with the best interests of our children, staff and the community in mind.
“This has been a very disruptive and exceptional term for all concerned, with the impact of Covid-19 being felt throughout our schools, resulting in absenteeism and staff shortages across the board.
“During our discussion on Sunday evening with the RSC we were made aware, for the first time, that under the Coronavirus Act 2020, individual trusts have no academy freedoms to make decisions for Covid related reasons, such as setting their own term dates.
“Although we are very disappointed at having to inform our staff and families of a change to our plans, we accept the DfE’s position and have reverted to the original term days.
“We welcome the government’s commitment to the roll out of increased and faster testing, and we hope that schools will be amongst the first to benefit from this development.
“Our full team remains committed to providing our children with a first-class education.”
Stockport had also given permission for schools in the local area to close two days earlier than originally planned.
But while the DfE said it is “in contact with the local authority”, the Government department has made its views clear on the move.
School Standards Minister Nick Gibb said: “The best place for children to be is in schools, which is why it remains a national priority to keep them open full time and avoid further disruption to education.
“I know this is a challenging time but the latest data shows only 0.2% of pupils were off school isolating with a confirmed case of coronavirus. Closing early for Christmas or extending the holidays is not the answer.”
The U-turn on school closures comes after figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed the number of weekly registered deaths involving coronavirus surged past 2,000 in England and Wales for the first time since May.
In the seven days ending November 13, 2,466 deaths involving Covid-19 were registered.
This is the highest number since the week ending May 22, when 2,589 deaths were registered at the height of the pandemic, and an increase of more than a quarter (529 deaths) from the previous week.
Deaths linked to coronavirus, which also increased for the 10th consecutive week, accounted for a fifth of the overall deaths in England and Wales in the week ending November 13.