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Stop the school opening fiasco

May 22, 2020 5:59 PM

The government is trying to balance the risks to children's education and the risks to public health in decisions over school opening. At the moment they're reaching the wrong conclusions, argues Councillor Ryan Bate.

The first point to make in the 'school opening' debate is that the vast majority of schools never closed. Schools have remained open to vulnerable children and those of key workers. Teachers and support staff continue to provide learning opportunities for the majority of children sat at home during the lockdown. This provision was put in place with almost no notice and, as Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has said, it is wrong to criticise schools who have been doing their absolute best from a 'standing start'.

As we now try to navigate the Covid-19 world (it is wrong to say post-Covid because the virus may never leave), we must balance the risks which the virus poses to public health with the social and economic damage being done by our response to the pandemic. The social costs of children not being in school are significant and to some degree irreparable. For all the hype around so-called 'ed-tech' over the past few decades, I think what this pandemic has proven is that you cannot better the actual physical interraction with a teacher, nor the real environment of a classroom. It is therefore vital that children return to school, to reclaim their educational enititlement, as soon as possible.

That is however the key point - children must return to school for educational reasons. What they return to must be significantly better than what they are currently being provided with via distance learning. In primary schools, so much of education is actually socialisation - for younger students this is learning through play, or for all students it is developing the social and emotional skills of functioning in what are the communities of a classroom, the corridor or the playground. In secondary schools, where learning becomes more focused around disciplinary knowledge, the benefits come from being sat in distinct lessons (and classrooms) with a specialist teacher. That is the quality of education which children are currently missing out on. Sadly, what is currently being suggested that children to return to is a much poorer alternative.

Social distancing in schools will be facilitated by establishing 'bubbles'. Students, of all ages, will be limited in terms of the number of peers and adults which they can interract with. This will require them to spend all of their time in school in the same classroom, with the same small group of peers, with the same member of staff. This is so far from 'normal', I would suggest the value is such a small incremental improvement to the current distance learning that it is not worthwhile. All children need social interraction and variety, and especially at secondary school, this is provided by the standard school timetable and movement between specialist teachers. So how have we come to this?

The government are trying to balance public health with educational impact. Like in so many decisions related to the pandemic, they are faced only with bad options, just to varying degrees of bad. In school opening though, the government are making much of the lack of risk to childrens' health - most don't suffer from the disease. The government are however clearly not convinced by the small body of evidence which suggests that children do not transmit the disease. It is this concern over household-to-household transmission via children which is driving the plans for social distancing. Of course, enforcing social distancing will be far harder than anybody is acknowledging, not least in unstructured time, such as break or lunchtime, nor on students journeys to and from school.

If there is still a risk to public health from opening schools more widely, which the need for social distancing suggests, then the educational benefit derived from opening schools must be worth this health risk. Having thought carefully about what provision schools can offer within the parameters being asked of them, I have come to the conclusion that the marginal gains in education do not justify the risks of house-to-house transmission, which are inevitable given how impractical social distancing is.

Frankly, the very need for social distancing stops any chance of providing a quality education and it isn't practical anyway. So the government needs to first be patient and then be bolder. Once it has track, trace and testing where it needs to be, and we have a firmer view that the rate of infection is lower, we could then bring whole cohorts back (i.e. the whole of Reception, or the whole of Year 10 who have their GCSE exams next year) and deliver as close to a normal timetable as possible to full classes. As long as people follow guidance around isolating when symptomatic, together with contact tracing, then rates of infection can be controlled. Far better to take a little while longer and opening more widely than currently planned, than taking the current approach which is so compromised and illogical that it is likely to cause more problems than it solves.