Election officials have accused the Education Secretary of a “complete lack of knowledge and understanding” after he called for disruption to schools caused by polling day to be kept to a minimum.
Schools up and down the country are typically used as polling stations and there are fears that the date of the General Election – December 12 – could throw traditional festive events such as nativity plays and Christmas concerts into disarray.
Earlier this week, Gavin Williamson announced that he has written to council leaders asking them to do anything they can to avoid disruption to school Christmas activities, with funding made available to help councils find alternative polling venues.
But a row is now brewing over the issue, with the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) writing to the Cabinet minister to express their “extreme disappointment” at his call.
The AEA, which represents the officers responsible for running elections, wrote: “We have received universally concerned feedback this morning about the complete lack of knowledge and understanding demonstrated in your letter as to how challenging it is to deliver an election at short notice, particularly when Parliament set the date of poll in December with all the associated issues a winter election brings.”
The stinging letter, first reported by BBC news online, describes Mr Williamson’s intervention as “unhelpful”, saying officers “question why this letter was sent out so late”.
Most polling stations have already been booked – work that needed to be done urgently as there is a legal duty on returning officers to send out polling cards as soon as possible, it says.
The letter, signed by AEA chief executive Peter Stanyon, also challenges Mr Williamson’s assertion that “in every community there will be alternatives” that can be used as polling stations, arguing that this is not the case and in many parts of the UK, especially rural areas, there are “simply no alternatives to the venues designated as polling places”.
It concludes: “We recognise the inconvenience that this election will cause, none of it the fault of returning officers and their employing local authorities, and every effort is being made by the electoral community to work with schools and other public premises to mitigate those difficulties.
“However, the simple truth of the matter is that, when Parliament decided to hold the poll in December at short notice, significant and unintended consequences followed.”
Early findings from a PA news agency survey suggest that some councils are considering taking up Mr Williamson’s offer of funding.
Bath and North East Somerset Council said it will be taking up the offer, and that it is attempting to find alternative venues so that schools can remain open on polling day. It has found two community centres and a pub that can be used.
As it stands, eight schools are being used as polling stations, two of which will close for the day, the council said.
Portsmouth City Council said it is considering whether to take up the funding offer.
It used 17 schools as polling stations in the 2017 general election and will be using 14 this year.
Headteachers make the decision on whether to close a school, a spokesman said.
Bracknell Forest Council said it will not be taking up the funding and that it uses very few schools for polling – three are due to be used for the forthcoming General Election, with two closing.
There have been a number of reports of schools being forced to cancel events due to polling day.
Jess Phillips, Labour parliamentary candidate for Birmingham Yardley, tweeted that she had been contacted by a parent to say that a primary school “is having to stop their Christmas fete which was to raise funds because of cuts, because the school will be a polling station”.
The Association of School and College Leaders has suggested it is time to review whether schools are suitable venues to use as polling stations.
A number of councils, including Brent and Gateshead, said they had put their polling station arrangements in place before Mr Williamson’s announcement.
Brent said it was using 43 schools, mainly primaries, as polling stations, with the individual schools deciding whether to remain open.
Stockton Council said it had no need at this stage for alternative venues – it is using five schools and all are due to remain open.
Coventry City Council said it was required to confirm bookings for polling stations by the end of October so data could be provided to printers to print polling cards.
None of the 36 schools due to be used as polling stations identified an issue with Christmas events, a spokesman said.
City of York Council said whether it takes up the funding depends on if it needs to find alternative spaces, such as hiring mobile units.
Nottingham City Council said it has a policy not to use schools if alternatives are available.
It is using 10 schools as polling stations, with eight remaining open and two partially closing.
Gateshead Council said it is not taking up the funding as all polling station bookings have been made.
It is using 27 schools as polling stations, 12 of which are closing, nine are remaining open and the rest have not confirmed their plan.
The council said it was not aware of any school Christmas activities being affected.
Leeds City Council, which has 76 schools being used as polling stations, said it was required to supply poll card data by noon on Monday November 4, the day before Mr Williamson sent his letter.
Wirral Council said the Education Secretary’s letter was “a bit late during preparations” as all polling places have been booked and poll cards printed and ready to be dispatched from Monday next week.
It is using 46 schools as polling stations, with current information that 37 will be closed.
BCP Council – which covers Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole – said there are three polling stations in the Bournemouth area that are on school premises, or shared with a school. All will stay open.
A total of 25 schools in the Calderdale area will be used for voting and the council said it is down to the schools to decide whether to stay open.
North East Lincolnshire Council said it will not be taking up the funding offer.
It has 14 being used as polling stations and all will remain open.
A Cornwall Council spokesman said: “We’ve been working hard across the council to prepare for the snap General Election and part of that has involved planning ahead to make provisional bookings at polling stations to make sure they are available.
“Where possible, we’ve avoided using schools, only using them in areas where no suitable alternatives are available.”
Barnsley Council said it had finalised polling station and printed poll cards before the funding offer was made and it has a policy of only using schools when alternatives are not available.
It is using 16 schools, with half closing and half remaining open. Newcastle City Council said it is not taking up the funding, and it will be using 10 schools.
It is believed they are staying open.