Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. He is a retired head teacher and a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street.
Local authorities and academy trusts must ensure that schools re-open in at the start of next term, come what may. The Prime Minister is right to insist that this is a ‘national priority’. In the interests of those millions of under-privileged children who are suffering most from the lockdown our government must stick to its guns.
Testing and tracing should not be regarded as the ‘key to schools returning’ as a group of scientists from London University are now claiming. Children are more likely to be hit by lightning than to die of coronavirus, as an alternative group of scientists, based at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, have made clear. Nor is there any known case of pupil-to-teacher transmission.
The ‘test and trace’ warning over the re-opening of schools may apply to parents wishing to return to work but, mostly, it not it does not apply to to their offspring. Children, especially those at nursery and at primary school, are much less likely to be infected or to infect others. If they do contract the virus, the symptoms will almost certainly be mild, as the London scientists at the centre of the latest scare admit:
“If infected, children typically have mild disease. This comparative lack of severe disease changes the benefit-to-cost ratio associated with closing schools: most children will only get very mild disease, if infected, but at the cost of all children suffering as a consequence of school closure.”
We should not be keeping schools closed on the basis that it will allow mums and dads to go back to work and thereby, potentially, spread the virus. Our efforts should focus on educating parents any attendant risks that may be attendant on their return to work.
Amongst developed countries the UK has by far the highest proportion of young teachers. Almost a third of primary school teachers (31 per cent) are under the age of thirty compared to 13 per cent in other countries looked at by the OECD. Our teaching workforce is in a much better position than most to return to school to do the job for which they are paid. With the oldest generation teachers, Italy, hit hard by the virus, is all set to re-open schools in September.
Our teacher union bosses, sadly, seem determined to keep schools closed for as long as possible. They claim a desire to get teachers back into the classroom but come up with reason after reason why this is not possible. A few week ago, it emailed its members with what it described as ‘strong advice’. It told them: ‘. . . you should currently not engage with any planning based on a wider reopening of schools.’ Meanwhile, a newspaper investigation discovered that some teachers are using the lockdown to supplement their incomes by providing online private tuition.
If other unions adopted the same stance, especially those representing hospital staff, the entire country would be paralysed. The National Education Union has even advised its members against providing on-line lessons and head teachers have been threatened with naming and shaming if they open their schools.
Back in 2015 David Cameron told the Conservative Party Conference that:
“Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.’ He added: ‘Here, the salary you earn is more linked to what your father got paid than in any other major country. I’m sorry, for us Conservatives, the party of aspiration, we cannot accept that.”
The UK’s version of the comprehensive school system, with its selection by postcode, has contributed to the widening of social divisions. Although there has been some improvement in recent years, our pupils lag behind those in more effectively run school systems such as Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and even poorer countries such as Vietnam and Estonia.
As if matters were not already bad enough, the closure of schools, although not total, has accentuated the social division within British education. The provision of substantial and effective online tuition by dedicated teachers has been the norm for many children but not for around four million of the less well-off. They are now heading ever more rapidly towards a social and employment scrapheap.
The closure of schools is further fracturing our already divided society.
We cannot go on in this manner. Parents have a legal right to home-school their children. An equal right must be restored to that vast majority of parents who rely on state schooling. Union bosses do not represent the majority of teachers and they need to understand that their political power game has been rumbled. They need to stop playing truant with the truth about the potential impact of the coronavirus on schools and work for and not against the best interests of our children.