Here we go again. Boris Johnson is staking his reputation on a full reopening of schools in England at the start of next month. After failing to deliver his pledge for all primary school pupils to return to the classroom before their summer break, Johnson cannot afford another broken promise.
By visiting two schools in East London today, the prime minister is taking personal charge, although if things go wrong again the person to pay the price will probably be Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, in the next reshuffle.
Johnson declared a full return of schools the “national priority”, saying the country has a “moral duty” to make it happen. He is pointing to research to be published by Public Health England suggesting there is little evidence coronavirus is transmitted at school.
But a full reopening is not without risks. The government’s scientific advisers believe older teenage pupils could pass on the virus, and so a full return could raise the R rate (the average number of people infected by someone with it) by 0.5 per cent, taking it to a dangerous level of 1.5 per cent. Johnson does not want to create room for schools to reopen by closing pubs and restaurants. That would deliver a body blow to efforts to revive the economy, which Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is understandably keen to prioritise. Instead, the government is more likely to extend nationwide the ban on people from two households meeting indoors or in their gardens, which is already imposed on parts of the north of England. Although schools would be shut as an “absolute last resort”, Johnson might struggle to keep them open in areas subjected to local lockdowns, as he intends. An outbreak at an individual school cannot be ruled out.
The reopening is fraught with difficulty. There are concerns about safety on school transport, despite a £40m government fund. The NHS test and trace system is not performing as well as the government had hoped. Ministers have rejected a call by Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, for weekly testing for teachers and pupils even if they do not have symptoms.
They are pinning their hopes on “bubbles” within schools to reduce transmission.
Heads and teachers are not convinced. The Association of School and College Leaders wants a “one week on, one week off” rota system if there is a second spike in infections. But that would not deliver Johnson’s pledge. “We want a full return, and that is what is going to happen,” one government source insisted.
The National Education Union (NEU) is calling for a Plan B in the event of a second spike. The government wants all schools to have contingency plans for online learning. But many children, often from the most disadvantaged families, missed out when that was used in the past six months, and ministers struggled to provide the 230,000 free laptops to schools they promised.
As during the first skirmish with the unions before the summer holidays, the Conservatives are quite happy to play politics with the issue. They try to divert attention from their own missteps by painting the unions as the villains of the piece. Predictably, they now accuse the NEU of “wrecking” the return because it issued a checklist of 200 safety issues. The criticism is unfair, since Mary Bousted, the union’s joint general secretary, said: “Schools will reopen in September. The NEU wants schools to reopen safely.”
The Tories seek to tar Labour with the same brush. They accused Kate Green, who has taken a more independent line by not backing all the teaching unions’ demands since succeeding Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary, of sitting on the fence. In fact, Green has made clear Labour wants children back in the classroom next month, with more support for schools and a better test and trace system.
Ministers are banking on having parents’ support in this battle of their own making. But many parents will also have concerns about safety, so ministers need to tread carefully.
It sometimes seems that Downing Street has only one mode of operating– confrontation. It doesn’t do conciliation.
Yet the government will need the goodwill of heads and teachers to make the return work. Many feel the government’s guidance is inadequate and that they have again been left to pick up the pieces, as they had to amid constantly changing rules in recent months. Ministers would be more likely to engender that much-needed goodwill if they stopped dismissing legitimate concerns about safety as “wrecking” tactics.