(image: Eline Rijpers)

Dave Lister calls out a rushed and ill-prepared Cabinet decision to reopen primary schools

“All right four-year olds. Make sure when you are playing in the playground that you maintain a safe distance of two metres from each of your friends at all times.”

It started off reasonably well with a manageable and uncontroversial system. Children of key workers and vulnerable children went into school and were taught by a skeleton staff. All other children remained at home receiving work set by their teachers online. This meant that many parents experienced having to keep their children focused and maybe obtained an insight into the skills that teachers need to have to do this with a class of maybe 30 children. We have no way of knowing how effective this home learning has been. Parents who have been working from home would have found it particularly difficult to also manage their children’s learning.

Concerns have been expressed by people such as the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, who called on minsters and teachers to “stop squabbling” because disadvantaged children would fare badly under this system and fall further behind their more advantaged peers. The Government had a scheme to provide children without access to the internet with laptops, but The Guardian suggested that these would not reach them until June, when some of them might be back in school.

There have also been problems with free school meals. The Government used emergency powers to award the contract to supply vouchers to buy food to families entitled to free meals to a French company, Edenred, without any competitive tendering. The Guardian reported widespread dissatisfaction with their performance, with some parents waiting two weeks for their vouchers and some supermarkets refusing to accept them. The scheme is not being extended into the next half term.

Now the Government is planning for all Reception, year 1 and year 6 primary school children to return to school on 1st June with the aim of all other primary-age children returning before the end of this term. Year 10 and 12 students are also expected to see their teachers from 1st June as they will be sitting their GCSE and A Level examinations next year. The rationale for year 6 children returning is that they need to prepare for transition to their secondary schools. Arguably the Government has selected early years children because they require more attention from parents working at home whilst older children are more likely to be able to work on their own.

However there has been considerable opposition to the Government’s plans from teacher unions, some local authorities and some parents. The NEU has organised a mass petition against a return unless it can be carried out safely and won support for this stance from the British Medical Association. They have outlined the following five conditions for condoning a return:

  1. Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases.
  2. A national plan for social distancing in schools.
  3. Access to regular testing for children and staff.
  4. Protocols to test a whole school when a case occurs and isolation to be strictly followed.
  5. Vulnerable staff and staff who live with vulnerable people to continue to work from home.

The unions had a meeting with the Government’s scientific advisers on 15th May but were not fully reassured and it is quite likely that they will advise their members not to return on 1st June. Unsurprisingly there has been a backlash from the right-wing press, with the Daily Mail accusing Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the NEU, of “working against the interests of children” and of being a “Corbynite lover of Communist Cuba”.

To date at least 18 local authorities have either, like Liverpool and Hartlepool, totally opposed a 1st June partial return or said it is up to individual schools to decide. In that case the advice I have seen is that this would be an operational decision for headteachers to make but they should consult their governing bodies.

It is interesting to note that the scientific adviser to the DfE admitted to a House of Commons select committee that a wider reopening of schools could bring together “hundreds of potential vectors that could lead to the spread of the virus” and that the decision to reopen schools was taken by the Cabinet, not the DfE. It was therefore a political rather than an educational decision. We can also contrast the Government’s approach with the situation in other countries such as Denmark, where a joint body of Government ministers and union representatives jointly agreed on the process for reopening schools as safely as possible.

There are also practical issues around opening up schools at a time when hundreds of people are still dying every day from Covid-19 and significant numbers are still catching this disease. How do you maintain social distancing on narrow corridors or on staircases? How do you provide school lunches for larger groups of pupils? How do you manage playtime and lunchtime in the playground? BBC News has shown schools cordoning off library books and other resources. What are teachers going to do with their pupils in these circumstances?

The conclusion must be that the Government has rushed into its decision to reopen schools without sufficient thought and with its eye on expanding the economy more than on safeguarding people’s health. On the other hand, it is not brilliant to have children out of school for months on end. When would it be totally safe for children to return to school with the possibility of a second spike to come? Like much else there are no easy answers but we should surely support the teachers’ unions in demanding greater safeguards before putting children, staff and parents at too much of a risk. Meanwhile the Shadow Secretary of State for Education Rebecca Long-Bailey has been strangely silent and there have been recent signs that the Government may be having second thoughts in the light of the widespread opposition to its plans.

A final thought. Maybe just as children today might learn about how the First World War generals led their men to slaughter, children in the future might learn how during Covid-19 Tory ministers like Matt Hancock misled the country with the fourth-highest number of Covid-related deaths in the world and the highest in Europe.

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