Has anyone who is recommending the use of masks in schools ever spent any significant amount of time working with young people? It seems unlikely.
Children simply will not wear their masks correctly, if at all. Girls will constantly be adjusting them; boys will be flicking them across the room and pulling each others’ elastic bands. They’ll all be pulling them down to their necks at break time, resulting in pieces of food and drink being spilt inside. That, and the fact that they’ll be wearing them around their necks, mirroring the behaviour of adults they see on public transport, further trapping bacteria. If anything, face masks will be detrimental to the health of young people.
Of course, there is much to be debated about whether face masks are beneficial at all, with the deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, recently announcing that they may, in fact, increase health risks. I’m not a medical expert; I’ll leave the science to the professionals. What I do know is that masks will not work in a school environment.
We can model best practice and instruct young people on how to wear their masks properly, but it's nigh on impossible to get 1,200 students all doing the same thing. Even the kids who won’t be fidgeting with their masks and touching their face every few minutes will still have to take the masks off when they enter a classroom and put them back on after lessons. This repeated removal renders them effectively useless and possibly infested with harmful germs. Consider how many times a child forgets to wash their PE kit, and that only needs to be done once per week. Now consider how many children will fail to wash their face masks every night, after playing with them all day. Not to mention the fact that it’ll be difficult to prevent them from swapping masks with each other in the playground.
All this is without even addressing the point that kids will be kids. They can be mean to each other at the best of times. Unless schools have a uniform face mask to distribute, you can guarantee children will be bullied over their choice of fabric designs. The naughtier individuals will be spitting on and licking other peoples’ masks, too. It’s a behavioural nightmare.
Introducing a volatile element like this to a school will upset the balance of things. Developing a school culture with good behaviour for learning is a tremendous effort. Great schools sweat the small stuff so that they rarely reach the bigger issues. Schools such as Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela Community School where I'm a governor, and Toby Young’s West London Free School where I taught computer science, get such fantastic results because they focus on behaviour first and foremost. It doesn’t matter how good the curriculum is if children can’t access it due to the bad behaviour of other pupils around them. That is why apparently minor infractions like talking out of turn and chewing gum are stamped out from the get-go, so that they never approach the yelling, chair-throwing, door-slamming madness of other state schools. This is why pupils at Michaela and the West London Free School earn grades far above the national average.
However, introducing masks into the mix means teachers may not be able to see who is back chatting, swearing or chewing gum. Kids like to test boundaries – it’s only natural – but once they figure out they can get away with these things, it’s only a matter of time before they attempt something worse.
In order to give our young people the best possible start in life, we need to set high expectations. Children will generally rise to meet them. It’ll be practically impossible to maintain those high standards with children wearing masks, even if it’s only for a limited time throughout the day.
It seems to me that this isn’t guidance based on ‘the science’. Instead, it appears to be a tactic to encourage anxious parents to send their children back to school. But while Boris Johnson is right that children must return to schools come next week, compulsory mask-wearing isn’t the way to go about it.
Schools have been planning all summer, putting extra social distancing and hygiene measures in place; we’re ready to begin the new term without further interruption. Let’s not fall foul of the pressures from some unions, and let’s certainly not follow the examples of Scotland, whose education system is rapidly nosediving to match the performance of their government.