This week, all students across the United Kingdom should be safe at school. Or will they? When the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) modelled the wider opening of schools, it concluded that a full opening would lead to a rise in the R number. Consequently, SAGE advised against full opening of schools. The National Education Union (NEU), along with Independent SAGE spelt it out very clearly: a full reopening of schools should not occur without a functioning test and trace system in place. No doubt this is why our Prime Minister promised a ‘world beating’ test and trace programme prior to schools reopening to Reception, Year 1, and Year 6 on 1st June. Did we get it? No. NHS test and trace is still not reaching its targets. For the ninth week running, England’s version of test and trace failed to contact anywhere between 25-40 per cent (depending on location) of close contacts provided by people who tested positive for coronavirus.
Teachers were told there would be a comprehensive plan to ensure any further reopening of schools in September was safe. However, school leaders’ heads have been left spinning as guidance has been issued, then reissued multiple times since June. Oftentimes, guidance has been issued late at night. To add to the confusion and last-minutery, the final piece of government guidance for schools came out at 7:30pm on the Friday before schools reopened. It’s almost as if the government has been purposefully dazzling teachers and school leaders into a permanent state of uncertainty.
Can the government really say they’ve done everything they can to make a return to school as safe as possible? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’. Test and trace is not good enough. We are failing to learn, again, from the evidence already coming out of neighbouring countries. In Scotland, where coronavirus is being detected in schools, mask-wearing has become compulsory in communal areas (in England it is only advised). Why aren’t we taking steps to see off this problem in advance? Because to do so would damage confidence about the return to school. To avoid this, the government has chosen to appeal to our emotions, and this is why Mr Johnson’s message is simple: it’s our “moral duty” to send our children to school. The argument is that children need to be in school for three reasons: socialisation; learning; and nutrition.
Yet this government can hardly say it has felt a moral obligation towards our children, can it? If so, why do so many families need to rely on their child’s school to supply their daily hot meal? The latest data indicates that a whopping 17.3 per cent of school children are eligible for free school meals (FSM). That’s just over 1.5 million children. If you thought that schools were simply places of learning, then think again.
We need to stop kidding ourselves that the return to school next week is about some moral imperative to safeguard our children. If the welfare of students were genuinely a concern of this government, they would never have needed to perform a U-turn over plans to stop FSM during the summer holidays. The government would have taken heed of the situation with exam results in Scotland and side-stepped a U-turn on A-levels and GCSE results in England.
More importantly, though, they wouldn’t have cut school budgets to the bone. In primary schools with the most deprived pupil intakes, budget cuts have averaged £382 per pupil each year. In secondary schools serving the most deprived areas, budget cuts amount to an average £509 per pupil each year. If you’re interested, you can type your postcode into the Stop School Cuts site to find out what’s going on in your area. This isn’t a government that feels a moral imperative towards providing the best for our most disadvantaged children.
The reality is that the return of all children to school is necessitated by the country’s dire economic situation. The simple fact that the UK’s GDP was down by 20.4 per cent in the second quarter (Q2), making it the worst affected comparable economy in the world. Consequently, the government is desperate to get our economy back online. Presumably the biggest threat to this is parents keeping their children away from schools at a time when we need a workforce liberated from the responsibilities of childcare. The threat to impose fixed penalty notices (FPNs) on parents who keep their children away from school indicates just how serious an issue this is for our economy (there’ll be no FPNs for parents with children at independent schools, mind you).
Looking back, we’re undoubtedly paying the price for 10 years of Conservative governments, obsessed with cutting services and dismantling the state. Since December 2019, we have been served by a government crippled by short termism. Consequently, the short-term, ‘quick win’ solution is to push ahead and re-open schools fully. Sure, 1.5 million children relying on FSM will get fed this week – but hungry children aren’t the thing keeping Boris Johnson and his cabinet up at night. It’s the economy, stupid.