Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, one of the most difficult issues the Government has had to face is whether to keep schools open or not. During the first wave, a combination of backlash from teaching unions and parents hurriedly removing their children from classrooms arguably forced ministers’ hands into ordering closures around the country.
In September, after a summer in which the Department of Education was lambasted over an A Level grading system designed by Ofqual, millions of children finally made it back to school, albeit they were subjected to new measures with a view to stopping the spread of Coronavirus.
In spite of all the guidance – from staggered times to one-way systems to children having to socially distance – there are signs of more trouble to come. The National Education Union (NEU) is already pushing for schools to close during lockdown, a demand which has been endorsed by Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester Mayor.
Labour, too, although currently supportive of keeping schools open, has indicated that schools should be at the front of the queue for mass testing after NHS and social care staff. It remains to be seen how much of an issue it will be if the Government does not go along with that idea.
Then there’s the Welsh Labour government, which has recently cancelled exams for 2021 – in a move that has prompted questions to be asked about why Number 10 has not done the same in anticipation of difficulties next year.
In short, in spite of the fact that schools are now open, it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good. Things might change very quickly, as we’ve seen happen during this crisis.
How concerned should the Government be about being pressured into fresh calls for a second round of school closures? What should it do in the interim by way of preparing a response to mounting demands of this nature?
The first thing to say is that public confidence in school openings seems to have changed considerably since the start of the year. As of November 2, the Children’s Commissioner found the attendance rate in England had gone from 17.5 per cent in July (the post-lockdown peak), to 80 per cent in September, with nine out of ten children now back, indicating that parents are relatively content with the current direction.
Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich and a member of the Education Select Committee, agrees that something has shifted, and believes unions are “going to struggle in their argument”, adding that “I think there’s much more of a sense that we should keep schools open” among the public.
Teachers, too – at least, by and large – appear to support reopenings. A survey from Teacher Tapp suggests that 46 per cent believe that schools should stay open.
But here comes the more troublesome part; 39 per cent supported closures for this lockdown, and that’s a sufficient constituency for the unions to be able to argue that they have a mandate to insist upon change. Given that there have been teaching strikes in France and elsewhere, the DfE cannot afford to be complacent.
One fear is that the unions will move away from the idea of closing schools, to suggesting a more nuanced approach, but one that would equally prove disruptive to students’ education.
The NEU, for example, has proposed for schools to move to a rota scheme, whereby students spend one week at school, followed by one week at home – hardly the easiest arrangement to roll out. Yet, it may have legs. According to the Teacher Tapp’s survey, this is a strategy teachers would prefer to be adopted should the current Covid outlook not improve.
Of course, if the current lockdown does not lead to better Covid statistics, it will be that much easier for unions to make the case that schools should no longer be fully open, but should close or move into rota systems, or something different.
There are other matters on which the unions might agitate. The possibility of a vaccine soon arriving has prompted questions to be asked as to why teachers are not being prioritised. Until then, unions might argue that schools should remain subject to tough restrictions.
The DfE has already made contingency plans – lest there be a move to more homeschooling. For instance, it has been working with mobile operators to provide temporary access for free additional data, which will give families the ability to use online educational resources at no cost. In normal times, of course, the cost of data could be prohibitively expensive.
The perennial problem has been that of communication. The Government, and in particular Gavin Williamson, has not been a forceful enough advocate of the case for keeping schools open. They have been on the defence throughout.
The shame is that there is plenty of data to use to show why it matters to keep schools open. Some points to note:
- The Office for National Statistics’ found that there were no differences in the rates of positive cases between teachers and other professionals working outside of the home between September 2 and October 16 (in which case, why should teachers be prioritised for mass testing above, say, a delivery driver?)
- The Children’s Commissioner reports that “confirmed Covid cases at school remain very rare. There are just 8,000 (0.1%) pupils reported to be off school with a confirmed Covid case out of a total school population of 8.2 million”.
- A recent study suggests that schools should have never shut in the first place. No doubt this criticism will get stronger as we get to see the impact that the original closures had on children.
Furthermore, the Children’s Commissioner points out that the average school sends home 62 pupils for every child who tests positive for Covid. Because of overreactions of this sort, it can lead to outbreaks at schools looking worse than they are.
In essence, it is crucial that the Government and DfE keep making the argument as strongly as possible that there should be no further closures at schools, nor any tinkering which might in any way disrupt children’s further future education.
One possibility is that the Government sets up a task force, led by somebody like Kate Bingham, who can make the case for schools remaining open.
Whichever way, the Government cannot afford to be complacent about this area. It needs to be proactive, on the offence and as noisy as the unions in its push for reopenings; everything it hasn’t been so far. Or else further trouble will be inevitable.