The story of schools during the pandemic is a drama in five acts. Act One began in March with the closure of schools in England, following that of those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, except to the children of key workers and vulnerable children. Less was known then about the virus than is now, and evidence has since emerged that children were not important drivers of the disease, were less likely to die because of the virus than because of accidents, and that the risk to teachers was low.
Act Two demonstrated that it is easier to close schools than to re-open them. The Government attempted a gradual opening-up in June. Boris Johnson aspired to have all pupils back before the end of the summer term. However, the teaching unions claimed that safety could be compromised. Parents were still wary of sending their children to school. The Prime Minister’s deadline collapsed. Later during the summer came the exams fiasco, which dealt a deadly wound to Gavin Williamson’s authority.
Act Three saw a backlash against the closures, as summer moved towards autumn, the number of new Coronavirus cases dropped, and parents’ confidence returned. Robert Halfon and others had been arguing eloquently that the shutdown had damaged a generation of children, especially those in schools that hadn’t taught effectively online, whose parents weren’t engaged in their education, who didn’t have computers at home and who were already isolated and vulnerable. Williamson pulled off a successful autumn opening.
Act Four is demonstrating lessons from all the above. When the teaching unions dig in and parents support shutdowns, even a well-placed Education Secretary is fighting a losing battle. Yes, the Government kept schools open during the recent lockdown. (Rishi Sunak will have been a player in that decision, since the spring’s closures were one of the biggest factors in the economic slowdown, since they sucked parents back into homes for childcare.) But Williamson is a wounded Minister besieged on all sides.
Act Five will see further lockdowns, and many more schools closing. Most pupils will not return later this month as planned. To the left of Williamson are the teaching unions. To his right, the anti-shutdown campaigners. Above him are more senior Cabinet Ministers who are setting the shape of the overall policy – Matt Hancock, Michael Gove – whose priority is reducing the number of Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths. Above all, the scientific advisers want lockdowns, and they are once again setting the policy pace.
It is tempting to strike a fatalistic note. On paper, it is possible to draw up a twin Government message: that the virus is now such a serious problem that more areas must be shoved into Tier Four (or even a new Tier Five)…but that parents are safe to send their children to school. In practice, this is mixed messaging: many parents will simply take fright, however well-proofed schools are against Covid. And it must be conceded that schools may not be so secure this time round against new variants. Who knows?
Two further points arise: one looks back, the other forward. “Plan A for schools is in danger of breaking down,” ConservativeHome wrote in September. “So we need a Plan B for schools – online.” We called for “a guarantee of online provision, backed up by inspections, and computers for children whose parents can’t afford them”. The Department for Education says that the Government expects to deliver over over 100,000 laptops and tablets during the first week of term, with over a million being provided in total.
That’s more than a bit of a start. But Williamson’s painstaking, doomed attempt to keep primaries open in London is impossible to reconcile with the drift of events since at least November. More areas went into Tier Three on December 14th. The Tier Three area in the south and east was expanded on December 17. On December 23 came Tier Four and more Tier Threeing. On December 30, Tier Two disappeared from the map of England completely.
Shouldn’t Plan B, bits of which are now set to be implemented in dribs and drabs, have been pushed with more oomph from at least early December, when the direction of policy was becoming clear? The Education Secretary will have been held back by the centralisation of decision-making. But schools are up in arms about a sudden demand from his department to test all pupils this week. Even allowing for the Covid equivalent of “the fog of war”, Williamson’s department looks like an erratic performer. There is a collective failure of imagination.
Finally, there is the alternative to a policy on online provision until, in all probability, the later part of February or even later still: namely, either speeding up vaccination, so that teachers benefit from it, or moving them up the vaccine priority ladder, or both. (Teachers currently “could” be included in Phase Two of the programme, and there is no timetable for the end of Phase One.) That last move would of course mean moving others down the ladder, and it is difficult to see why care home workers, say, should be deprioritised.
All the same, government could be clearer about the shape of Phase Two, whose early beneficiaries may include “first responders, the military, those involved in the justice system, teachers, transport workers, and public servants essential to the pandemic response”. As elsewhere, value judgements will be impossible to duck. Just how important do we all really think the prospects of the next generation are, when push comes to shove, and when wealth and property is already concentrated in the hands of older ones?