There’s a moment in Moonraker – the book not the film – when a lover says to Bond: “I’m in the Special Branch”. Then a bomb goes off. When his consciousness returns, Bond finds himself saying to himself: “the Special Branch. What was it she had said about the Special Branch?”
We have a way of trying to cling to normality when the abnormal happens. The point applies to real pandemics as well as fictional explosions. And to the tos and fros of education in Britain as well as the thrills and spills of Bond’s sex life.
Many of us can’t help thinking that the pre-Coronavirus world will return soon. Of which a part will be children going to school as normal. But this may not happen – especially if Government policy insists on trying to minimise Covid-19, for better or worse, and fear of it continues to haunt the public.
In which case, what’s happening in schools now will carry on happening until or unless a vaccine becomes available, or herd immunity is achieved, or the disease is proved to have become less fatal, or mass testing works as effectively in Britain as it has in parts of the Far East.
And what’s happening is roughly as follows: most schools have re-opened. But some are reacting to the prospect of Coronavirus, real or imagined, in the following ways. A pupil falls ill. He or she is discovered to have the virus. The school then demands that all pupils are tested, whether they’ve been in contact with that student or not.
No tests are available. That has knock-on effects on the willingness of parents to send their children to school, regardless of the fact that Covid-19 is not usually a danger to the very young. They also rush to try and have those children tested, thus putting further strain on a system that already isn’t coping.
But it’s not just pupils who may stay away from schools. It’s also teachers – to whom Covid, after all, is more of a threat, since they’re adults. Or else, to pick another example of what can happen, a teacher rather than a pupil gets the virus.
Other teachers in the schools want to get tests, and can’t. They then stay away, or do so anyway. And have to self-isolate in any event if they have been in close contact with the teacher concerned. Then see above: the school then wants all pupils tested. Some parents stop sending their children to the school.
The consquence is that education as usual becomes impossible for those who do turn up, because the school has been compelled to merge groups and classes. So there is now talk of rotas, which are inevitable in the absence of more teachers or more premises or both, at least if the availability of testing stays as it is.
Even if it improves, children will be at the back of the queue. That’s as it should be, but it will do nothing to improve the likelihood of parents sending them to school. Ministers are floating pushing teachers up the testing queue to just behind NHS and care home workers.
But prioritising teachers for tests will be of little use if these are not quickly available. Meanwhile, those pupils sent home, or kept away by their parents, can’t look after themselves if they’re under secondary school age. And childcare often won’t be available.
So parents will have to stay at home instead. Which will slow economic recovery, if not reverse it. Which threatens to bust the Government’s new plan of trying to keep workplaces open while severely resticting leisure – hence the six-person rule, curfews and marshalls.
Stand back for a moment, and ponder this unravelling tapestry. Some of its features aren’t the Government’s fault. They are the consequence of people acting unreasonably, or at least taking action that may do no harm to them but will to others. Get the precautionary principle out of all proportion and the result is stasis.
None the less, there has been an institutional failure of imagination in Downing Street. Life does not always return to normal. Vaccines don’t invariably turn up on time, as Robert Sutton pointed out on this site earlier this week. It’s no use shooting for the moon if you don’t keep your feet on the ground.
Schools have not been at the top of Boris Johnson’s in-tray during Coronavirus. That’s partly because the health service originally had to be, partly because of the wider debate about lives and livelihoods…and partly because they have less of a grip on voters’ imagination than hospitals.
The NHS is Britain’s national religion, not better schools. That helps to shape politicians’ priorities, Whitehall’s, the media’s – and the Prime Minister’s. We are collectively underfocused on the life chances of the next generation. Last spring’s lockdown has already done these inestimable damage.
As our columnist Robert Halfon never tires of pointing out, it is being felt especially among the disadvantaged: the very reverse of levelling-up is taking place. It doesn’t help to have an Education Secretary in place who has been damaged by the results fiasco.
ConservativeHome believes that, even if death rates rise, the Government should be opening up the economy – and letting testing and tracking take the strain. If it can’t, then the need for a Plan B for schools is urgent. That has to mean a mix of teaching in schools and online.
That would require a guarantee of online provision, backed up by inspections, and computers for children whose parents can’t afford them. Some private schools are already streaming lessons from classrooms into homes. Expectations for the state sector should be just as high. Bond may only live twice, but we’re only schooled once.