Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 are the right place to start…but 1st June is too soon for most schools.
The question of how and when to reopen schools in England isn’t an easy one. Inevitably, it’s descending into a rigid polarised debate between two factions. In one corner, there are right-wing politicians and their cheerleaders in the press, desperate to see children return to the classroom at the earliest opportunity and understandably eager to see the economy begin to recover. In the other corner, there’s a vocal group of teachers and headteachers, backed by their unions, equally understandably concerned about the safety implications.
Recent history is the enemy of healthy dialogue here. Conservative politicians and the British press rarely try to hide their disdain for teachers and, in turn, most teachers have learnt to mistrust the government. Parents, it seems are divided. Many are desperate to offload their children so they can get back to work while many others don’t think it’s worth the risk. A clear and logical national strategy is needed on a question where compromise seems all too difficult to reach.
The last few weeks have highlighted the sort of inconsistency that results from a lack of national coordination. Some children have received an impressive offer of remote learning, put together quickly and innovatively by their teachers. Many other children, we must acknowledge, haven’t. This isn’t always, or even usually, because schools have been unwilling- in many cases they simply lack the expertise or technological capability. Even for those children whose schools have been able to teach them in their own homes, there’s no comparison between this provision and what is possible in school.
In addition, of course, there’s the issue of supervision. Childcare isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) the school system’s primary function but it is an essential secondary one. The economic cost of parents unable to work due to childcare commitments is real and the biggest victims of economic carnage always seem to be the poorest and most vulnerable. For all these reasons, everyone from Daily Mail headline writers to the leaders of the education unions would agree that schools need to return as soon as it is safe for them to do so. And here is the problem. How safe is safe enough?
Firstly, let’s clear a few things up on both sides of this debate. The risk posed by the Coronavirus to primary school children does not appear to be statistically significant enough to justify closing schools on that basis alone. That sounds callous and you might be convinced by the response: “one child being at risk is too many”. This sounds worthy but it’s sanctimonious nonsense. You can never protect the entire population of school children from contracting infections right across the country and that’s not a reasonable condition to place on the reopening of schools. The risk posed to children at school or anywhere else can never be 0% and it never has been- that’s why we have risk assessments.
However, before I get accused of siding with the Daily Mail, let me also stress that this is only part of the picture. We still don’t know enough about how the virus spreads between children, sometimes asymptomatically. It is therefore a reasonable assumption that all households sending their children to the same school, many of which will include elderly and vulnerable relatives, will be open to infection from one another.
I teach Year 6 and I don’t want my pupils’ primary school days to end at home in front of a computer screen. However, I also work in a well-resourced independent school and we are far better-equipped than most state primaries would be to keep our pupils spread out. I’m not even going to indulge the notion that most schools can practise proper social distancing with children in Reception and Year 1- of course they can’t.
For this reason, it doesn’t make sense to open schools until the virus is brought properly under control and new infections are close to zero. This is how some of our neighbours, such as Denmark, have managed to get children back to school. However, unlike the UK, Denmark contained its outbreak effectively in the early stages and we are not in the same place. It doesn’t seem realistic from the current numbers to think that new infections will be anywhere near to zero in England by 1st June.
I can see the logic in partially reopening schools a couple of weeks before the Summer holiday. It would give ministers, scientists and health professionals the chance to properly assess the effects of reopening schools during a short window after which they would close again for several weeks anyway. I also think the government have chosen the correct year groups to start with. Reception and Year 1 children are the hardest to reach remotely and vulnerable children in those year groups are probably most at risk. Transitions matter and giving Year 6 children the chance to say a proper goodbye to their primary school years is something I’ve always felt is tremendously important.
The government should abandon its ambition to fully re-open schools this side of the summer holiday. Many schools have staff members who are particularly vulnerable to the virus or live with people who are. Schools can only cater for a full complement of pupils if they can be fully-staffed. A far better plan for the government would be to focus all its energy on containing and controlling the virus during June. They can re-open schools for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 when new infections are negligible, with a view to collecting data and aiming to reopen in full in September. If such a compromise could be reached, I’d encourage teachers and our unions to try and work with it.