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One of the biggest headaches for the Government during the Covid-19 crisis has the reopening of schools. As soon as Boris Johnson announced plans to get primary schools fully functioning by June 1, the teaching unions were ready to challenge the decision in the most dramatic way possible. They called plans “reckless” and “irresponsible”, as well as advising schools not to “engage in planning meetings”.

Perhaps it is no wonder that only one in four children returned at the beginning of the month, as a result of this fearmongering. And this wasn’t only down to parental concerns; figures published by the Department for Education showed that only 52 per cent of schools opened up to reception, year one and year six, indicating that staff are worried about resuming business too. Thus the Government has been forced to rethink its goal of getting all primary schools back before the summer holidays.

The media has been typically unhelpful while these events unfold, portraying the difficulties in getting schools to return as a problem that’s unique to the UK – and a dire reflection on the Government. There’s been a distinct lack of comparison with Europe, despite newspapers documenting the continent constantly when they want to claim that Britain has the worst death rate. The fact is, Europe offers key insights into the challenges and nuances of the school situation – which are felt widely.

For starters, what’s evident is that there’s no “right” approach to reopening schools. While there are crossovers in strategies, different regions have their own ideas about what works best. Denmark, which was the first country in Europe to reopen schools in mid-April, started with primary settings – with children aged 11 and over allowed to return May 18. In contrast, Germany prioritised older children doing exams, and primary schools were the last to go back.

Then there are the regions that are keeping things shut for everyone. Italy, which was the first European country to close schools and universities, has decided to reopen them up again in September. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have also taken this cautious approach – in spite of having low Covid-19 rates compared to western Europe. But will the British media be reporting on the impact this will have on youngsters’ education? Don’t expect such an analysis any time soon…

Some of the variations between countries, in their approach to schools, reflect the level of centralisation in educational administrations. Much of Spain’s reopening plans have been contingent upon each of its autonomous regions, and the same goes for Germany, which has 16 states directing their own reopening rules.

Though France has a centralised education system, it has divided the country up into coloured zones as a means to decide who can return. Children in the “green zone” – where the virus is less prevalent – have gone back to school before those in the “orange zone” (including Paris) – where the virus poses more of a risk.

Just like the UK, the German government has had resistance to its plans. Last month, parents in Saxony won the right to keep children at home over Coronavirus fears, having been backed by teaching unions. Home schooling is illegal in Germany, and without the case going through, parents would have faced prosecution.

As a result, Germany’s regional culture ministry announced it would suspend compulsory attendance laws – meaning parents can homeschool for now. Public opinion is fairly mixed on the subject of schools reopening; some are extremely concerned about safety, and others are finding Germany’s cautious approach a step too far. The country’s decision to divide up lessons has meant children are left with random periods of free time, making childcare much harder for their families – with employment ramifications. The UK must take note.

France, too, has had some turbulence with its plans. Macron has been one of the most forceful leaders in Europe in trying to get schools moving again. On Sunday evening he warned parents that schools will reopen next Monday, and that presence will be “mandatory”, adding that summer holidays will be postponed until July 4. 

Perhaps it is no wonder he has been so bold in his demands. According to the Government, only 1.8 million of the country’s pre- and primary school children have gone back (out of 6.7 million), and only 600,000 of the country’s 3.3 million middle schoolers.

As with the UK and Germany, unions have kicked off. Sub-Education teachers’ union has criticised the “abrupt nature” of Macron’s statement, claiming that “[t]here are a lot of questions that still remain unanswered”, and Des Stylos Rouges (The Red Pens), a teacher advocacy group, has posted its objections on Twitter – demanding more clarity. So it’s a fallacy to believe that these sorts of conflicts are limited to Britain.

Another reality that has been buried in among all the headlines about the unions and the Government, then Johnson and Starmer, is whether a second wave occurred in schools that reopened. The UK has been extremely lucky, in many ways, not to have been the guinea pig for such an experiment.

The good news is that European countries that sent children back in April and early May have not had significant increases in new cases. Denmark, for instance, reported just under 200 new cases a day mid-April and 14 as of June 8. Experts suggest this may not be down to social distancing, but a lower transmission rate of Covid-19 among children. Whatever the reason, this is an encouraging step for concerned parents.

Ultimately, what’s happening in Europe demonstrates that the UK’s school reopening plans are not “in tatters” as one headline put it, as these teething issues have been experienced elsewhere. Instead of the UK in-fighting, as it always seems to – even in a pandemic, the most important thing we can do is pay close attention to the lessons in the continent as to how best phase out a return to schools, in line with the Government’s initial plan.

14 comments for: Union battles, parental resistance and court cases: why the UK isn’t alone across Europe in getting schools to reopen

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