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.