Public compliance has been essential in the Government’s fight against Coronavirus, and although it has arguably been successful in imposing lockdown, getting life back to normal looks rather more challenging. Case in point: the enormous difficulties the Education Secretary has had in trying to reopen schools.
After months of confusion and resistance from parents, teachers, unions, the Labour Party, and seemingly everyone with an opinion, Gavin Williamson put his foot down earlier this week.
On LBC, he said that parents who would not send their children back to school in the upcoming academic year (beginning September) would be fined, unless they have a “good reason” or subject to a local spike. It’s the first time the Government has exerted real authority on the matter.
Crucially, the Government substantially enhanced its guidance for how schools can reopen safely. Some of these steps include administering Covid-19 tests to all schools and colleges, creating “bubbles” between year groups so that they have different lunch and break times, and adapting classrooms, so that windows are open and tables are facing the same way.
Even so, one suspects that the unions still won’t be happy… One of the worst parts of the school saga is that it was completely hijacked by their noisy selves. At every step, they polarised the issue to deeply unhelpful levels, including telling teachers not to engage with planning officials, in doing so obscuring the voices of those who wanted to work through perfectly reasonable concerns.
One worry was simply about consistency in health advice. As one headteacher told ConservativeHome a few weeks ago: “it’s quite worrying when the Government guidance goes from ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives, do not go anywhere near anybody’ to then suddenly ‘actually you don’t really need to socially distance with little ones anyway, so it will be fine’. That doesn’t feel like a confidence-giving statement.”
Many felt that the guidance had not gone far enough – and lacked a realism about young children’s ability to socially distance.
Moreover, the headteacher said that the Department of Education had been poor in terms of educational resources, adding: “nowhere… does it say what schools should be doing to provide online provision for children who are not at school. So every school in the country has translated that differently and is offering something different, and it becomes a pure lottery.”
Such concerns – that the schools closures were highlighting inequalities in the educational system – became central to more recent debates on reopening schools. There’s a sense that the focus has shifted, with the societal consequences of staying off school (domestic violence, mental health, parents’ inability to work, and the rest) outweighing the direct health risk of Covid-19, hence why the Government has now offered a £1 billion Covid catch-up package – in addition to £14 billion being invested over the next three years.
Much of the Government’s insistence on schools going back is no doubt directed by health experts’ increasing belief that children do not transmit, or pass, Covid-19 to the same extent as adults; a phenomenon increasingly highlighted through the safe reopening of schools elsewhere in Europe.
But, as with all things Coronavirus-related, there are no certainties, so the Government cannot reassure teachers and educational staff in the way it would like. Ultimately it’s worth remembering, though, that it cannot legislate around every difficulty that this virus might bring, and at some point we are – not just schools – simply going to have to get on with things.
Labour, too, has to take responsibility for the difficulties in reopening schools. The party saw the issue as a political football from the start, allowing the unions to dominate the Left’s response. For all who hoped of some national solidarity during a pandemic, watching these unhelpful criticisms – especially given the socioeconomic damage leaving schools closed will cause – was deeply depressing.
Even now Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, has laid into Williamson on fines, warning that they will affect poorer patients. But faced with some of the biggest resistance in the Covid-19 crisis – and an issue that’ll leave all children worse off for years, the Education Secretary simply had to get tough. “About time,” many will think.