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U-turn ‘chaos’ for Camden schools over latest coronavirus closures

Headteacher warns that a repeat of guidance confusion would be 'farcial'

10 January, 2021 — By Harry Taylor

Headteacher of Haverstock School, James Hadley.

HEADTEACHERS and union leaders have told of their frustration at the government’s ever-changing orders which eventually saw school gates shut to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers until mid-February.

School leaders who spoke to the New Journal this week said they feared they were in for a “long haul” with learning from home, with none feeling certain as to when pupils will be back in classrooms. All agreed with the ultimate closure order due to rising Covid case rates, but said children would miss face-to-face teaching.

It was confirmed on Wednesday that cancelled GCSEs and A-level exams would again be replaced with teacher-assessed grades.

In a communications meltdown, secondary schools had been told that they could return to class within just two weeks, with a post-Christmas start date set for January 18 – despite the rising coronavirus cases in the capital.

Camden primary schools were, meanwhile, told they should come back on Monday, even though other London boroughs were told to keep theirs closed.

Council leader Councillor Georgia Gould was among several council leaders who wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson expressing their incredulity at this decision.

School heads and council chiefs had already agreed in a Zoom call on New Year’s Day afternoon that they would defy any government order to keep primary schools open.

Half-an-hour after that meeting ended, Department for Education officials changed their minds again and said Camden’s primaries would stay closed. Then on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a national lockdown which will mean schools are unlikely to open before the February half-term.

Addressing the House of Commons on Wednesday Mr Williamson said exams will not go ahead. “Although exams are the fairest way of assessing what a student knows, it’s not possible to have these exams this year,” he told MPs.

James Hadley, headteacher of Haverstock School, said it creates uncertainty for pupils. “Sitting those exams is something so vital for them after all the effort they’ve put in,” he said.

“While I don’t agree with exams being cancelled in educational terms, I can see why the government has had to start thinking about this seriously.

“It wouldn’t be fair or tenable to be running a full exam season knowing what we do now.”

Staff had worked over Christmas and New Year to try and prepare their schools for pupils’ return. Mr Hadley, whose school had piloted coronavirus testing in Camden schools before Christmas, said: “It’s been a very challenging period with so many changes of direction from the DfE, which if we hadn’t have had, would have clearly made it not so frustrating. If this continues it will become farcical.”

John Hayes, headteacher at Gospel Oak Primary School, said: “I think the big concern is that everyone has anticipated the need to do this and yet the government leaves it to the last minute to make the announcement, which has put an awful lot more stress on us and increased our workload quite significantly.”


Mr Hadley said he expects demand for remote learning will continue beyond the half-term, while Mr Hayes said he has become used to the government missing its own targets.

He said: “We’re prepared for the long haul again. We hope that the new variant dies down and the vaccine works, so we can get children back into school as quickly as possible. We’re always prepared for that to not be the case.”

Camden’s NEU branch secretary Gerald Clark has called for Mr Williamson to resign. He said: “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.”

Hugo Pierre, Unison’s schools convenor in Camden, said: “The government have bungled their attitude to schools staying open for all pupils considering what they knew about the impact of this new Covid variant in December. They should have acted [then] instead of taking local councils in London to court to bully them into following their mistaken strategy.”

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