16/12/2020 13:12 GMT | Updated 16/12/2020 13:45 GMT

Eton's Closure After Covid Outbreak Fuels Backlash Against Government Over State School Threats

Gavin Williamson told councils to expect legal action if they closed their schools early for Christmas due to Covid spikes.

A growing backlash has emerged over the government’s threats of legal action against councils that close schools early for Christmas – not least because elite private institution Eton has already shut.

The prestigious school, which was attended by Boris Johnson, closed to pupils on December 11, with headmaster Simon Henderson writing to parents to say: “We want to avoid a situation where potentially a very large number of close contacts of positive cases have to self-isolate for 14 days over the Christmas period.” 

Henderson said a number of positive cases of Covid-19 had been identified in the school, adding: “The health and wellbeing of the school community is my top priority.” A look at the school’s calendar reveals that almost all planned events have been cancelled until December 17, the date Eton’s term was supposed to end. 

But with some state schools in Covid-hotspots forced to stay open despite huge outbreaks of the virus, the government has been accused of double-standards – with no indication that Eton will face any repercussions.

As an independent private school Eton does not have to follow the same rules as state schools, which are controlled by their local authority. 

Labour MP Zarah Sultana wrote: “While the Tories force state schools to stay open even where councils say it is unsafe, Eton has closed due to an outbreak at the school.  

“The lives of the working class matter just as much as the lives of the super-rich. 

“We need a government that recognises that fact.” 

She was joined by fellow MP Ian Lavery, who tweeted: “Covid outbreak at Eton... Action: students are ALL working remotely... right move I would say. 

“Covid outbreak in state schools... Action: the Conservative government are threatening legal action to keep the students at school. 

“What’s that saying about rules for the rich?” 

Seventeen-year-old student Hasan Patel, who made headlines after winning a scholarship to the elite school and has more than 60,000 followers on Twitter, wrote: “Eton closed down last Friday and we’ve had virtual lessons since. It’s the right thing to do. 

“But if it’s good enough for Etonians, then my friends in East London deserve nothing less. Shame on this government.”

A number of councils in London have now reported contact from the Department for Education (DfE) warning them of potential legal action if they were to go ahead with closing early amid soaring cases. 

The Labour-run Greenwich and Islington councils were forced to row back on their advice for pupils to be taught at home in the last few days of term.

Waltham Forest Council, also under Labour control, said schools in the north-east London borough had been threatened with potential legal action by the government if they followed the council’s advice to shift learning online.

A fourth Labour-run council, Redbridge, said it would support a switch to online learning as schools faced “huge strain” due to the impact of local coronavirus cases.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has called on the government to consider closing all secondary schools and colleges in the capital early and reopen later in January due to coronavirus.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the government had won a “hollow victory” in Greenwich, adding that he would not be surprised if parents kept children at home. 

School attendance has continued to fall throughout the autumn term, with the most recent data showing a huge disparity in pupil absences across the country. 

As the following graph from BBC Newsnight journalist Lewis Goodall shows, some local authority areas, such as Medway in Kent, are now dealing with attendance rates as low as 53% in secondary schools. 

It emerged on Monday that all secondary school and college staff in England will be tested weekly for Covid-19 from January. 

The DfE said that lateral flow tests would be deployed to all secondary schools and colleges to “help detect asymptomatic cases and break chains of transmission”. 

Heightened testing has already been introduced in some schools in Essex, Kent and London Covid-19 hotspots, with confirmation of a new, potentially more infectious strain of Covid-19, spreading across the south east.