School reopening rationale and data to remain secret, says government

Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville and education secretary Gavin Williamson 

Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville and education secretary Gavin Williamson - Credit: Hackney Council/Stefan Rousseau/PA

The government is refusing to disclose the data and rationale applied to its short-lived decision to reopen schools in Hackney at the end of last year

Nine councils, including Hackney, are demanding education secretary Gavin Williamson publish the reasoning behind plans to open primary schools in December last year - as well as the data on how schools will re-open next month. 

The Department for Education (DfE) refused a Freedom of Information request from the mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville, asking for “the methodology, data and evidence base” that it applied when it initially announced last year's decision, despite Hackney's high case rates at the time. 

Mayor Glanville said: "After not getting replies to our letters, asking questions in meetings and officers seeking answers from the Department for Education, this FOI was a last resort."

Despite having a high Covid case rate of 865.5 per 100,000 at the end of 2020 and, being in the top 10 worst affected boroughs in London, Hackney and several other boroughs with high infection rates were told to reopen schools, while areas with lower rates, like Westminster, were told they should remain shut.

The government took a U-turn on New Year's Day, just 48-hours later, saying the reopening of all London schools would be delayed, after many questioned the decision.

The council said the DfE responded to its FOI request by stating that "public interest in non-disclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure in this case”, and that “premature disclosure on this topic would be likely to disrupt the future working relationships, necessary consultation and flow of ministerial advice”. 

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Mayor Glanville said: “It’s frankly astonishing that anyone could claim that how ministers are making decisions that affect the health and lives of thousands of children, parents and teachers are not in the public interest.

“I immediately asked the minister to publish the data behind his decision last month, and weeks later families across Hackney are none the wiser about the shambolic and stressful 48 hours they were subjected to by this government.

“That is not good enough for parents and teachers in Hackney." 

The same explanations are alleged to have been used to refuse similar requests from other boroughs like Camden, Islington, Kingston, Lambeth and Lewisham.

The Mayor added: “As the Prime Minister says schools may reopen in March, and we can’t see a repeat of this failure in the coming weeks. Gavin Williamson must commit now to being open and transparent about how he will decide which schools will reopen when.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said schools could reopen March 8 at the earliest, but the government has not yet to published plans to do so, or strategies about which schools could open first, or if certain areas or year groups will be prioritised. 

Mayor Glanville and Deputy Mayor Cllr Anntoinette Bramble have written to DfE to request an internal review of the decision to reject the Freedom of Information request.

A DfE spokesperson said the government is "fully committed" to reopening schools as soon as the public health picture allows and has taken "every step" to ensure pupils can spend as much time in the classroom as is possible. 

They added: “We will set out plans for schools, parents and pupils as soon as possible, providing as much notice as we can.

“We regularly review evidence and advice from sources including SAGE, PHE and ONS, to ensure our policies are guided by the most up-to-date scientific and medical understanding.”

Despite the secrecy surrounding the data, the government says its guidance reflects scientific and medical evidence and advice. It says it is important for all pupils to return to school full-time "where possible".