All I want for Christmas… is a government that listens to people

It was 9.39pm on Sunday, March 8th, when I was alerted to the first positive case of Covid-19 within Greenwich. It seems like a lifetime ago. In the nine months that followed, we have faced extraordinary challenges as a community. We were first confronted with a personal protective equipment crisis. Having been promised that supplies were on their way, after five days I had to turn to schools to help solve the first major crisis of the pandemic. Our hospital was close to bursting and a number of patients were stuck, blocking beds because we were unable to get the PPE needed to safely move them.

Exasperated and out of ideas, I took to social media in an appeal for help. Within minutes, my community responded, and I was flooded with offers of help, including from the ever helpful Mr Greig, head of Plumstead Manor School whom I have known since I was 11 as he was a teacher at my secondary school. I was out collecting this PPE myself, because everyone was up to their necks with work, responding to the initial emergency. Laden with as many boxes of gloves, aprons and science goggles that he could muster up in the dark, Mr Greig dispatched me back to the Town Hall, with a promise of further help if needed.

By the next morning, the Town Hall foyer was filling up with more donations, from businesses, residents and schools like Charlton Manor, one of our special schools providing support for students with complex special educational needs. On day one, our Greenwich family of schools were at the heart of our response.

Things moved quickly, and the initial lockdown arrived just a few weeks later. I was proud that every school in Greenwich remained open for our most vulnerable children, whilst their parents and carers went off to do their bit to keep us all safe. The sons and daughters of nurses, cleaners, shop workers, bin men and women, the children of the dedicated public servants whose grit and determination saw us through those early days. Whilst the nation gathered on doorsteps and in windows to clap, bang and applaud their bravery, I visited some of our schools to meet the teachers, the teaching assistants and school staff who were putting themselves on the line, day in and day out, to care for others.

Our community hub swung into action, working with schools to deliver food to those who were shielding. But it wasn’t just food that was needed; it was other basic needs. I remember talking to Rachel, the amazing headteacher of Willowdene, who look after some of the most vulnerable children in our borough about the life changing work they were doing for families.

Not just delivering food to those who were shielding but shopping for the specific foods that Willowdene children required. Arranging for a specific exercise bike to be taken to the home of a child who needed physical exercise but couldn’t leave the house. Teachers and council staff giving up their weekends and opening the playground so individual families could escape from their flats, and get the space and time they needed outdoors in a safe and secure way.

Far from closing schools in Greenwich, they became seven-day-a week hubs for those who needed them. There is absolutely no doubt that reopening was a challenge, and we spent hours and hours working alongside all of our schools, regardless of their governance structure, to reopen all of them safely. Our headteachers were truly magnificent, each on developing individual plans bespoke to each school. Whilst the government fixates on its ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to education, our heads were creating risk assessments for classrooms, playgrounds and the most vulnerable staff. Forming bubbles and plans to keep bubbles from mixing, or meeting in corridors between geography and science.

It was truly inspirational. A Blitz-like spirit in every school. In the last week of lockdown, we had 4,067 children in Greenwich schools, a number that had grown each week of the crisis. Once the mountains of guidance (ever-changing!) had been digested and implemented, Greenwich schools implemented a range of staggered starts and nifty tricks to get everyone in safely. Summer holidays came and went in a flash. The number of new cases reduced to double digits, and there were even moments in those balmy summer evenings when we had no new cases for days on end. What bliss!

The school term started well, with routines well understood by pupils and parents and school staff largely in good spirits. The exams fiasco had been difficult for many of our young people. There were ongoing conversations about what to do about those that had lost out, but the rhythms and rituals that govern school life kicked in and that first term was largely uneventful. School leaders managed sporadic infections well. I checked in regularly with teacher friends and got a weekly analysis to show what was happening. At Windrush primary, the last school I taught at before being elected as the council leader, they had a weekly attendance that averaged 97%.

Term 2 had always been my worst as a teacher, and it turned out to be just the same as leader of the council. The mornings are darker and colder, the days get shorter and the physical energy it takes to teach becomes more and more intense. Pressure grows to start seeing progress in all children, and then you collide with the magic of Christmas. I say magic, but Christmas in a school environment is the closest thing to organised chaos I’ve ever experienced.

Year group leaders and senior leadership teams enforce periods of allocated celebration with the precision of army generals. Discos, dinners, assemblies, craft making, food collecting are timed for classes and year groups – and that’s done well before you get anywhere close to planning to teach the story and meaning of Christmas at all. The halls are decked, the glitter comes out and by the beginning of December, the opening bars of Mariah Carey’s Christmas anthem is enough to send shivers down the spine of anyone aged over 11 working in the building.

And this is without the added complications that Covid Christmas would bring. By the beginning of November in Greenwich, things began to creak. We had a cumulative total of 50 positive cases in our schools, resulting in 1,349 children self-isolating and 124 staff out of action. Attendance was stable at around 88% and four out of five of our EHCP kids, or those known to social care, were in. As always, Greenwich schools were open for business.

As we headed towards the end of November, the normally bright, white lights that illuminate our Greenwich classrooms were flashing amber, as the situation became more challenging. Over 40 of our educational institutions now had a confirmed case, with 3,070 children in self-isolation and 334 staff in the same boat. Increased community transmission and stretched resources was beginning to make things extremely difficult indeed.

Mass testing was being rolled out in Liverpool, but despite repeated calls from myself, no such offer was forthcoming from the government. I passionately believed, and still do, that well-organised mass testing would make the difference. But with a diminished workforce here at the council, and a staff group managing everything from care home coordination to keeping the bin service going, there was simply nobody else who could be redeployed to run this in schools.

At the end of last week, we had a turn for the worse here in Greenwich. The usual weekly email arrived to give me the picture across our schools. The grimmest reading so far. “Unfortunately, all the figures are significantly higher than we have recorded on previous weeks, an approximate 40%-50% increase. The total number of children currently self-isolating is now 3,670 and the total number of staff currently self-isolating 314.”

I spoke to three heads late on that Friday night, who described themselves as having the worst week of the pandemic so far. Indeed, two of our schools had already completely closed due to the sheer number of staff who were out of action. My public health team were starting to report that we were once again seeing a sustained increase in infection numbers within Greenwich, and across the city.

On Sunday, having seen more data, it was clear that there were signs the virus was growing exponentially in Greenwich. The kind of growth that demanded immediate action. We had the highest recorded rates of any time since March, and with the increasing numbers of children self-isolating and feedback from headteachers, I talked to my team about actions that we could take that were based on the best interests of children and families in Greenwich.

Nobody likes taking decisions that they know will cause work for others, and disruption to many. But faced with the data before me, I decided to ask our Greenwich schools to change the way they were doing things in the final few days of term to do what we could to reduce further significant growth. At no point did we ask schools to close their doors: we simply asked for a mixed model of teaching that would reduce the number of movements, but absolutely ensure our vulnerable and key worker children were in school in the same way they were during the lockdown.

I’d penned a letter to parents and heads explaining my decision, which was published and shared with headteachers. There was evidently a gap between those two things happening, which I’ve apologised to heads and parents for. When you’re making decisions in real time, occasionally not everything matches up. But given where we were, I thought it was best to let as many people as possible know what was happening and get the message out there.

On Monday morning, our team spoke to the Department for Education and assured them that we were absolutely committed to keeping all schools open as we have done throughout the pandemic but had a series of local challenges that we felt justified our ask. Initial feedback was that more children were in isolation, and by the end of the day we had added over 500 children to those that we knew of on Friday.

The Department advised they would come back to us, and we continued to support schools throughout the day. At 2.20pm, the school standards minister Nick Gibb issued a letter directly to all school headteachers and governing bodies. The letter was not CC’d to the council as the local education authority, nor did we receive any communication from the Department to advise that it was being sent.

Understandably, school leaders were distressed, and the tone of the letter left a lot to be desired. The minister stated: “The government has made clear its commitment that education and childcare settings should continue to remain open to all children during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak and we have prioritised education even in areas of high and very high transmission throughout this term, with no other local authority area in the country taking this extraordinary step.”

However, by this point, several local authorities were indeed in a similar position to us, and certainly several schools across the country were already completely closed due to severe staff shortages. Most famously, Eton headmaster Simon Henderson had already written to his parents to advise the school was closing on December 11th because: “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.” For good measure, he added: “The health and wellbeing of the school community is my top priority.” Whilst I was undoubtedly thinking on a more macro level than Mr Henderson, it was a sentiment I understood entirely.

It was just before 5pm that the Regional Schools Commissioner emailed with a copy of the legal continuity direction issued by the Secretary of State, the first time that these powers had been used. It was difficult to believe that an attempt to do the right thing with our children and families had descended into the government threatening us with legal action. For the record, it was never something I’d intended to happen – and after a decade of brutal austerity, it was something we could ill afford to do.

Tuesday was spent supporting schools to ensure everyone complied with the order, and I wrote to headteachers early Tuesday morning. I apologised to heads directly in my letter. Stating: ”I know that each of you has a range of circumstances that you are managing locally and want to say how sorry I am that trying to get the best outcome for Greenwich has escalated in this way, and that both myself and the Director remain completely committed to supporting all Greenwich schools in the best way possible.”

As leader, I have spent a considerable amount of time supporting our schools and ensuring that as a council we do the very best for our young residents. On Wednesday, we distributed over 8,000 breakfast bags to our children on free school meals and in other vulnerable groups, building on the work we’ve been in four years to feed our kids in the holidays. With over 20,000 Greenwich children now living in poverty, this vital work may not be a statutory service, but it is essential work.

It was shocking, though perhaps not surprising, that the government announced on the last day of term that they were delaying the start of the January term for secondary school students, and that alongside their obligations to support the test and trace service, headteachers and senior leaders would now be spending the best part of the festivities trying to work out what on earth these means for them and their schools.

It is deeply regrettable that rather than collaborate with school leaders and councils in this most difficult term, the government entered into an entirely avoidable confrontation. Both the local data and the ‘feel’ of what was happening on the ground would have been very different from the perception in Whitehall. When the government issued this legal direction against us on Monday, our infection figure here in Greenwich was 254/100,000 residents. As I write this on Friday afternoon, my Director of Public Health has advised me that we are now at 309.

The last few days have been a bit of a blur, with messages coming in from the local community. And a difficult day yesterday for some of our headteachers, who had to ring numerous parents to tell them that their Christmas celebrations were indeed cancelled, and their children were heading home to self-isolate for the holidays. In attempting to explain the logic behind the government’s end of term testing arrangements, Nick Gibb told BBC News: “This is a fast-moving pandemic, we have to take action at pace.” Rather ironic given that on Monday, it was the same minister who had threatened us with court action for trying to do exactly this. By the time the minister had come around to our way of thinking, we had 4,790 children and 420 school staff in self-isolation.

At the end of the week, I still feel I made the right decision for my community. I’m extremely disappointed that more than anything, we’re nine months into this pandemic and the government still doesn’t trust local government to do the right thing. When they bypass us, they get it wrong. PPE. Shielding boxes. Testing and tracing. There are just a few of the examples of problems that could have been totally avoided had local councils been enabled to get on and do what we do best: serve our communities.

It seems like almost a lifetime ago that I sat on my first ever call with the Secretary of State for Local Government, when he promised to do “whatever it takes to support us”. It is clear that the other side of Christmas is going to be extremely difficult. We can only hope that the chance of some rest and time out may mean the government returns with a greater appreciation that councils like Greenwich are going to be even more important than they have been for the past few months.

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