Boris Johnson Has No Choice on Reopening Schools

Martin Ivens
·6 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One formerly obscure American presidential candidate, Warren G. Harding, won his place in history and his election by promising “a return to normalcy” after the disruption of World War One. Boris Johnson, fighting a far from glorious battle against Covid-19, knows that doing similar for the U.K. is key to his own future. Unless British children go back into the classroom next month, he will fail.

Brits have been much slower to return to the workplace than comparable nations such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy. The country’s indoor social-distancing rule of two meters hasn’t helped. A Morgan Stanley poll of office staff in all five countries suggests the U.K. likes the idea of staying home much more than its continental counterparts.

This has panicked Johnson’s government, which first urged workers to “stay home” but now fears that empty town centers and office blocks are harbingers of economic doom. In London, the Tube is operating at 25% of normal capacity, the buses at 52%. The economy suffered its biggest slump on record between April and June, shrinking 20.4% compared with the first quarter of 2020.

Getting kids back into school after the summer break will be critical to getting their parents back in the office. It’s impossible for both mum and dad to head off for the daily commute if they’re home-educating. Ministers have observed that many European countries have already reopened their classrooms.

Sweden never closed them, and it has seen no upsurge in Covid cases among pupils or staff. British schools were open to very few key workers during the summer term, and to a few lucky age groups at the end of the school year. Mothers are often taking the home-schooling strain. No surprises there, but the damage to the economy is evident.

The government is partly to blame. It was too successful in stoking parents’ fears when the schools were closed during the lockdown. The slogan “stay home to save lives” has lingered in minds even as more relaxed social distancing appears effective. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson seemed too frightened to challenge the resistance of teaching unions to reopening.

And this isn’t just about economics: There are even more compelling reasons to get kids back at their desks. A recent study from Edinburgh and Glasgow universities found 28% of children felt lonely during the lockdown, deprived of friends and structure to their lives. Without the resumption of formal education, a generation of children is likely to have its employment and earnings prospects blighted.

The poorest and most socially disadvantaged will suffer most. Just look at the government’s hapless attempt to devise a fair system for this year’s A-level results, which determine university entrance. Despite attempts to provide online education for all pupils during the last school term, an Institute of Education poll has found that 20% of pupils did less than an hour of study a day or no homework at all.

Johnson warned last weekend that keeping “schools closed a moment longer than is absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible.” The sentiments were impeccable, but the prime minister needs to go further and treat parents and teachers to an honest, adult discussion about trade-offs between health risks and the mental well-being and prospects of a generation of children. Ministers have hitherto hidden behind bluster and a partial, highly optimistic reading of scientific reports into Covid transmission among young people.

Reopening schools does involve risk. Yes, fatalities among healthy children of primary school age are statistically non-existent. Yes, the likelihood of them becoming “super-spreaders” is negligible too. But the same study cited by ministers to “prove” minimal risk suggests that some secondary school children may contract the disease, even if they’re usually mild cases, and could pass it to adults. It would have been better to admit that in the first place.

Among civil servants and ministers, there are also fears that September may bring an upsurge in infections anyway. Later in the year, an influenza outbreak could coincide with a new Covid spike and lead to a second disastrous closure of schools.

So, reasonable precautions must be taken. One sensible suggestion is for phased schooldays to limit the number of pupils on premises. The government policy to immunize everyone above the age of 50 and under 15 from the flu is also wise. Although ministers have oversold their program to track and trace the infected, it has improved and can now compare to the offerings of other European countries. Rigorous testing of teachers and pupils must be applied. Dividing children into separate year groups, or “bubbles,” will help.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, declared last week that schools should be the “first to reopen and the last to close” as “classrooms are more important than restaurants and bars.” She’s right, but the teaching unions continue to obstruct.

The National Education Union has compiled a “workplace checklist” of 200 demands that must be met before a school should reopen. These include making sure all trashcans have lids and that garbage is double bagged. There are also requests for “additional support for the well-being of staff suffering from workload concern.” Teachers’ genuine worries have to be taken into account but competing militant union leaders have outdone each other in nitpicking and foot-dragging.

A resurgent Labour opposition, hitherto a constructive critic of the government, has also been carping unhelpfully from the sidelines. Parties of the center left tend to rely on teaching unions for funds and activists. See how Joe Biden has surrendered to lobbying by these groups.

There are genuine complaints to be made about ministerial incompetence, especially around the examination system. But Britain needs — in the words of the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields song — “to pick itself up, dust itself down and start all over again.” This is about the future of millions of children, for whom education is not just a homework chore but the deciding factor in how their lives will pan out, long after Covid-19 is history.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

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