Thirty years ago, the then London Borough of Greenwich established a legal precedent – the Greenwich judgement – which in essence was an attempt to give priority to the Borough’s children on school admissions (it could not). We now have the Greenwich direction, striking down Greenwich’s attempt to prioritise the needs of local children, and their families, amidst the fast spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in the run-up to Christmas; and incidentally causing havoc to school end of term planning, and putting additional burdens on hard-pressed school staff.
When the history of government intervention in the Covid-19 pandemic is written, special attention must be given to the role of central government and its approach to education and children’s services. It started shakily with the closure of schools to nearly all pupils (there was no legal requirement), to drowning schools with guidance – over 500 pages at one point, needing a premiership footballer to argue the case that children need feeding, continuing to pursue school organisation changes when spare capacity could have been spent in supporting educational institutions, to regulations reducing the protection of children in care thrown out by the courts, and now the blind insistence that schools must remain open for face to face teaching and thus increase the risk of children spreading the virus to elderly relatives over the Christmas period.
At the LGIU we have tracked these changes through the briefing service and blogs. See The school system in England, Covid-19, Temporary Continuity Directions, free education, local government and what next? (28 October 2020), Covid-19: Reopening schools to all pupils – a view on best practice and current law (21 May 2020) and Covid-19: what about free school education? A personal view (17 April 2020). And the LGIU has tracked developments throughout the Summer. See Starting school in September 2020: catching up and recovery (16 September 2020).
Greenwich is not alone. We know about it because the Council made its view public that it thought schools should close a few days early before the end of term and Williamson chose to make his direction public immediately. Others have not made such a public show of their decisions. The education trade press has reported several areas doing likewise and the attempts by regional schools commissioners to encourage otherwise. So far, no further directions have been made public.
The Greenwich direction was described today by the Geoff Barton, leader of one head teacher unions, as a ‘sordid turf war’. Let’s be blunt. It is more than that. It is the culmination of a fifty-year campaign by central government to put all educational institutions under its direct control. For the last 20 years, this has mostly been done without recourse to direct Parliamentary legislation, or where the legislation doesn’t quite do what is required, make it up. It is clear from the formal response of Greenwich’s Director of Legal Services that he (the director) thinks Secretary of State Williamson has not got a case. An example of a “try-on” to use lawyer jargon.
The Greenwich judgement started the development of the procedures by which children get admitted to school culminating in the Code on School Admissions and the co-ordinated admission arrangements. The task needs which needs to be done on central local relationships is much bigger but let’s hope the Greenwich direction can be a catalyst for this long overdue piece of work.