As ministers work on plans to return all pupils in England to the classroom next month, the government is once again being criticised from all sides. Union leaders are questioning whether the current plan carried significant safety risks, while England's children's commissioner has made an intervention today warning that schools should be the last places to shut in future lockdowns – after pubs.
This comes back to a Whitehall phrase I reported last week, the ‘schools or pubs dilemma’. Ministers have started to consider their arguments in the event that some things have to close in order for others to open as a result of the rate of infection being too high in No. 10's view. Figures in government insist this is a false choice – but should push come to shove, the return of schools is something that is not viewed as optional in No. 10. Should it to fail to go ahead, there’s an awareness that it won’t just be a policy fail, it will be indicative of a much wider failure in the government’s approach to tackling coronavirus.
Of all the lessons of the pandemic that ministers would like to correct, the aspect of lockdown easing that is viewed within No. 10 as the biggest failure is not the ongoing closure of bowling lanes or ice rinks, but of schools. The government had to abandon its initial primary school target. While this was largely down to advice from SAGE and Public Health England, it came at a time of difficulty for the Prime Minister. Combined with the UK’s high death toll compared to Europe, it was taken as evidence that his government was not in control.
The determination to amend this is for several reasons. First, educational inequality will rise as a result of remote learning – with children from lower income households expected to be the most negatively impacted.
Second, the government is likely to face a repeat of the backlash it received when it missed the initial deadline of reopening schools. Core voters were quick to voice their dismay and Tory MPs who had been fairly loyal voiced their concern.
Finally, it’s crucial to boosting the economy. The Treasury views parents having to provide unexpected childcare as one of the biggest blockers to a return of some sense of normality at work.
The hope is that nothing will thwart the plan to reopen as any surge in cases will be one that is area-specific. 'We will avoid these things being knocked off course through local lockdowns,' says a government figure. Part of the forecast for the months ahead is that there will likely be school closures. However, these will be area specific rather than national. With Boris Johnson's entire strategy aimed at avoiding a second national lockdown, short-term pain in certain parts of the country is priced in. But schools remaining open also relies on an improvement in test and trace.
The hope for ministers is that despite talk of a second wave, the image of pupils across the country returning to the classroom next month will send an important message that the country can learn to live with the virus. A failure to do this will suggest the opposite.