The new powers introduced by the coronavirus law allow the government to give “instructions” to school principals regarding the provision of education during the pandemic.
But if schools don’t comply after being asked to stay open, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson could seek a High Court injunction forcing them to do so.
It is understood that directions under the law would only be used as a last resort, while a court order would be sought if they were not followed.
He comes as a principal in Ware, Hertfordshire, received a ‘straightforward’ letter from Schools Minister Nick Gibb warning that emergency powers could be used.
Presdales School had planned to switch to e-learning for the last week of the term to ensure staff and students don’t have to isolate themselves on Christmas Day, Schools Week reported.
But he was said to have scrapped the plans after receiving the letter.
Geoff Barton, secretary general of the Association of School and College Leaders, criticized the approach.
He said: ‘This marks a low moment when a government is threatening legal action against its own school and university leaders, who have all worked tirelessly throughout this crisis to make sense of the last minute and chaotic decisions at Westminster. .
“The government’s approach undermines the much-vaunted confidence it once said it had in the leaders and governors of their communities to make the right decisions on behalf of their students, parents and staff.”
The Ministry of Education (DfE) said keeping schools open remained a “national priority” and that it was “vital” that children stay in school until the end of the term. .
In Wales, secondary schools and colleges will switch to e-learning from Monday, following the opinion of the Welsh chief medical officer that the public health situation in the country is ‘deteriorating’.
It is understood that a directive under the Coronavirus Act requiring schools to remain open has not been used by the DfE to date.
Before a directive is issued, regional teams work with schools and local authorities to try to reach an agreement.