Emily Carver: This September, unions cannot be allowed to sabotage and obstruct children’s education again

1 Sep

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The beginning of a new academic year is always an exciting time. Even more so this September, following months of stay-at-home mandates, Zoom lessons and cancelled sports, music and social events. It will come as a relief to many parents and pupils that a full reopening of schools is just around the corner.

Despite the progress of the vaccination roll-out, however, a significant – and vocal – minority of people still harbour anxieties over the imminent return. The potential for cases to rise among unvaccinated children, for the virus to spread to teachers, and the perceived threat of long Covid are among the oft-repeated arguments for schools to keep social distancing measures in place.

The point is less whether these concerns are justified (and my reading of the data is that they are unfounded), but rather the possibility that coordinated pushback from teaching unions or headteachers alone will be enough to scupper the Education Secretary’s plans to get schools back to normal.

The Government appears to be taking that threat seriously, and has launched a “back to school and college” campaign to reassure teachers, parents and pupils that schools are indeed safe environments. The PR drive, which began last week, includes social and digital advertising as well as wider engagement with the teaching profession.

The message from the Department for Education and the Department for Health is not to throw all caution to the wind. While the policy of bubbles – which saw entire classes of pupils sent home as a result of one positive case – has been scrapped.

Regular testing will continue, and children as young as 12 years old will actively be encouraged to get vaccinated (there has even been talk of vaccinations going ahead without parental consent). The door has been left wide open for a return to mask wearing for pupils in the event of “an increase in cases” – which seems inevitable.

The vast majority of parents want children back in a routine. In July, the Office for National Statistics found that almost nine in 10 adults (89 per cent) with children of school age said they were likely to send their children back to school this September. They’ve seen the destruction wreaked by months of disruption, are aware of the risks, and have come down on the side of schooling and social activities.

Perhaps the remaining 11 per cent are still excessively terrified of Coronavirus. Or perhaps they’ve been influenced by the obstructive, fear-mongering usual suspects for whom the importance of education comes far below the opportunity to contradict this government.

This week alone Nick Brook of the National Association of Head Teachers has accused the Government of being “naïve” and claimed that further disruption will be “inevitable”.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, who back in May was overheard referring to children as “mucky germ spreaders”, has suggested the Government should follow Scotland’s lead in maintaining restrictions. Bousted declared that the alternative was “hundreds of schools” being forced to reintroduce tougher Covid measures, including bubbles, “within weeks”.

This was no great surprise from those who trade in the language of fear and thinly-veiled threats. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe these groups have children’s best interests in mind. Pupils in England lost 58 per cent of their classroom time – the equivalent of 110 days of learning – between March last year and this April alone.

Researchers at Oxford University found that the policy of bubbles, which saw more than one million pupils in England out of lessons in just one week in July, were no more effective in preventing transmission of the virus than regular testing. Record numbers of children are being prescribed antidepressants after studies suggested that missed schooling may be behind higher rates of mental distress.

Though children are, thankfully, less likely to experience severe symptoms from Covid-19, they have been collateral damage in the Government’s battle to limit its spread. While it may be in the interests of union bosses and some teachers to maintain a safety-at-all-costs strategy, it certainly isn’t for the millions of pupils who will discover their education sits pretty far down the priority list – and the most deprived will continue to be hit the hardest. The very same children the unions claim to care about most.

This last point is important. We know that the pandemic has already hit reverse to the Government’s levelling up agenda when it comes to educational disparities. As a government-commissioned report found earlier this year, pupils in some parts of northern England were losing twice as much learning over the same periods as those in London.

While the unions may respond to this simply with calls for more investment in catch-up efforts (the Government has already announced over £3 billion) or claims that Tory cuts are to blame, they continue to push for the very restrictions that have led us to this situation – with little to no real scientific justification or sense of proportionality to the threat that children and teachers do or do not face.

On the media round yesterday morning, Robert Halfon, Chair of the Parliamentary Education Select Committee, said that schools need to go back, that children need to be kept in school and that government needs to enforce this across the board. Refreshing rhetoric – but how confident can we be that schools will stick to government guidance after it seemingly allowed the unions to sabotage and obstruct education throughout the pandemic?

All may not be lost. It has been reported that “tiger headmistress” Katharine Birbalsingh, founder of the high-achieving Michaela Community School in North London, is in the running to become the new boss of the social mobility commission, the Government body in charge of helping improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

Seeking advice from experts like Birbalsingh, who have shown their ability to raise standards in deprived catchment areas, is certainly a step in the right direction if we are to catch up students who have lost out over the last year and a half.

Let’s hope the Government can capture some of her no-nonsense, common-sense spirit when it comes to the unions, stop pandering to their excessive demands, and finally allow school children the education they deserve.

As one epidemiologist calls school closures a “mistake”, did the decision lack adequate debate?

23 Jul

In early May, readers of ConservativeHome may remember that this site was critical of teaching unions, several of which had campaigned against schools reopening.

In a joint statement, some of them accused the Government of “showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools”, and encouraged teachers not to “engage in planning meetings”.

ConservativeHome felt the unions were wrong for several reasons, one being that their moves came across as politically opportunistic.

The Government was always going to have a much tougher time convincing people to come out of lockdown – than go into it – and some members of the Left have capitalised on this, stoking fears so as to obstruct the Conservatives’ plans.

The second issue is that, despite accusing the Government of “showing a lack of understanding”, unions seemed utterly uninterested in scientific data on the safety of reopening schools, nor what was happening around Europe, where such moves had gone ahead successfully.

While there are still a huge number of unknowns about this virus – and no one should make bold proclamations either way – the evidence appears more in favour of showing that children do not get – or transmit – the virus as severely as adults.

Hence why I wrote in May: “Adult to adult contact seems the big danger”, and pointed out that the World Health Organisation had said that “serious illness due to COVID-19 is seen infrequently in children”.

Furthermore, one study by the Health Information and Quality Authority concluded that “children are not substantially contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in their household or in schools”.

Now that we are further along in the crisis, this position has become more openly discussed. Yesterday The Times had an interview with Mark Woolhouse, a leading epidemiologist and member of the Government’s SAGE committee, who said: “[Children] are probably less susceptible and vanishingly unlikely to end up in hospital or to die from [Coronavirus].”

He also said: “There is increasing evidence that [children] rarely transmit. For example, it is extremely difficult to find any instance anywhere in the world as a single example of a child transmitting to a teacher in school. There may have been one in Australia but it is incredibly rare”, and he added that there “are certain environments where this virus transmits very well and children are not present in these environments.”

So what does this all mean? First of all, it’s worth saying that, no matter what the Government, unions, Labour Party or media did or said, a huge number of parents decided for themselves that they didn’t want their children to be present at school. 

The Government had been fairly firm about keeping schools open in the beginning of the pandemic, but lost its nerve after families started removing their kids from schools regardless of what they were instructed to do.

It’s difficult to say whether closing schools was the right thing to do; it will be one of the questions brought up in a future inquiry, which Boris Johnson has promised will go ahead.

One thing, it seems to me, about this inquiry, is that many are expecting it to show that the Government was not cautious enough. Members of the media no doubt think that the Government should have ordered lockdown weeks earlier, and that schools should have been shut down sooner, and so forth.

But, what’s been missing from mainstream debates, and may come out in an inquiry is evidence for a more hawkish position; questions about whether Britain’s safety measures – and indeed measures elsewhere – have been proportionate to risk.

On schools, for instance, the Government should have been challenged much more from the Labour Party about whether they should have closed at all.

Not least because let’s consider the risks. If children do not get Coronavirus severely, or transmit it much to adults – if at all, the decision to close schools looks like it’ll lead to worse outcomes.

Research from University College London’s Institute of Education has even shown that around 2.3 million children either did not learning at all or less than one hour a day.

There will be other terrible consequences, such as parents struggling to keep work (due to childcare arrangements) and more children at risk of domestic violence.

The list of negatives is very long, but these arguments received little attention, and anyone who questioned the schools closures – and lockdown generally – was portrayed as uncaring.

The Labour Party’s complacency over school reopenings – essentially letting the unions speak on their behalf – was shocking given what a terrible economic impact it will have on many families.

I’m not saying that all MPs had to be pro-reopening, incidentally, but there should have been two sides to the debate, one pointing out the educational and economic consequences.

As we approach September, there will probably be even more complaints about schools trying to get started. But the Government, and the opposition, must take Woolhouse’s words – and wider scientific perspectives – on board. In fighting Covid-19, we have been too knee-jerk at times in deciding the right thing to do.

The Government toughens up on school reopenings

3 Jul

Public compliance has been essential in the Government’s fight against Coronavirus, and although it has arguably been successful in imposing lockdown, getting life back to normal looks rather more challenging. Case in point: the enormous difficulties the Education Secretary has had in trying to reopen schools.

After months of confusion and resistance from parents, teachers, unions, the Labour Party, and seemingly everyone with an opinion, Gavin Williamson put his foot down earlier this week.

On LBC, he said that parents who would not send their children back to school in the upcoming academic year (beginning September) would be fined, unless they have a “good reason” or subject to a local spike. It’s the first time the Government has exerted real authority on the matter. 

Crucially, the Government substantially enhanced its guidance for how schools can reopen safely. Some of these steps include administering Covid-19 tests to all schools and colleges, creating “bubbles” between year groups so that they have different lunch and break times, and adapting classrooms, so that windows are open and tables are facing the same way.

Even so, one suspects that the unions still won’t be happy… One of the worst parts of the school saga is that it was completely hijacked by their noisy selves. At every step, they polarised the issue to deeply unhelpful levels, including telling teachers not to engage with planning officials, in doing so obscuring the voices of those who wanted to work through perfectly reasonable concerns.

One worry was simply about consistency in health advice. As one headteacher told ConservativeHome a few weeks ago: “it’s quite worrying when the Government guidance goes from ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives, do not go anywhere near anybody’ to then suddenly ‘actually you don’t really need to socially distance with little ones anyway, so it will be fine’. That doesn’t feel like a confidence-giving statement.”

Many felt that the guidance had not gone far enough – and lacked a realism about young children’s ability to socially distance.

Moreover, the headteacher said that the Department of Education had been poor in terms of educational resources, adding: “nowhere… does it say what schools should be doing to provide online provision for children who are not at school. So every school in the country has translated that differently and is offering something different, and it becomes a pure lottery.”

Such concerns – that the schools closures were highlighting inequalities in the educational system – became central to more recent debates on reopening schools. There’s a sense that the focus has shifted, with the societal consequences of staying off school (domestic violence, mental health, parents’ inability to work, and the rest) outweighing the direct health risk of Covid-19, hence why the Government has now offered a £1 billion Covid catch-up package – in addition to £14 billion being invested over the next three years.

Much of the Government’s insistence on schools going back is no doubt directed by health experts’ increasing belief that children do not transmit, or pass, Covid-19 to the same extent as adults; a phenomenon increasingly highlighted through the safe reopening of schools elsewhere in Europe.

But, as with all things Coronavirus-related, there are no certainties, so the Government cannot reassure teachers and educational staff in the way it would like. Ultimately it’s worth remembering, though, that it cannot legislate around every difficulty that this virus might bring, and at some point we are – not just schools – simply going to have to get on with things.

Labour, too, has to take responsibility for the difficulties in reopening schools. The party saw the issue as a political football from the start, allowing the unions to dominate the Left’s response. For all who hoped of some national solidarity during a pandemic, watching these unhelpful criticisms – especially given the socioeconomic damage leaving schools closed will cause – was deeply depressing.

Even now Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, has laid into Williamson on fines, warning that they will affect poorer patients. But faced with some of the biggest resistance in the Covid-19 crisis – and an issue that’ll leave all children worse off for years, the Education Secretary simply had to get tough. “About time,” many will think.