The government seems to be distancing itself from the 1 June date as 11 LAs have said they won't be able to re-open their schools on that date. No-one wants to deny children their education and as our recent study based on a survey of 4000 teachers showed, closures are having a significant impact. However, the majority of teachers say that they would only feel safe returning to schools with a system of test, track and isolate in place, but most teachers don’t think there will be one in their school.
Several organisations have asked different sets of stakeholders about the impact of school closures. The number of hours being spent learning at home is different across several of these: the Institute for Fiscal Studies report this week (of 4000 parents) find that primary and secondary students are each spending about 5 hours a day on average on home learning while TeacherTapp say that 1-in-5 secondary school teachers feel the vast majority of their pupils (more than 75%) are doing no work at all. Few would deny that it’s better to educate children in school, but is it safe to go back? This is the question that is dominating teachers’ thinking at the moment.
Teachers said in our survey that they don't trust the government to be the ones to tell them when it’s safe. They do trust the scientific community, but since the message from the govt has come across quite strongly about “following the science”, perhaps teachers don’t trust the govt to follow it particularly well. As one of our teachers put it: “what science have other countries been following then?”. Of course, some countries haven’t closed schools at all, or have already re-opened them, and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that this has led to an increase in the R value. Critics in the research industry would say that you can’t prove a negative, or that in the limited research available, there were no statistical controls in place etc. So, it’s understandable that teachers aren’t reassured by these studies.
The govt is now stressing that 1 June return is still conditional – on the five key tests being met. This is (in part) how Alex Chalk MP responded to the Schoolzone research this week:
“As the Government begins to slowly and cautiously lift some of the restrictions, it hopes to be able to return some pupils to school. That is because it is manifestly in the interests of children to be in school, learning. The longer they are kept out of the classroom, the greater the damage to their futures. The harm is particularly acute in relation to children from deprived backgrounds. With every passing day they risk slipping further behind their peers. That is a point strongly made in the Schoolzone survey.
“This calibrated and phased return is in line with what other European countries are doing to get their own schools, colleges and nurseries back. It will not begin any earlier than 1 June, and only if the five key tests set by Government justify the changes at the time. Initially, the Government expect children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to return to school, in smaller class sizes. The ambition is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer, if feasible.
“For older pupils, the Government hopes to get Year 10 and 12 pupils who have key exams next year some face-to-face contact with their teachers, to supplement their remote education. It is unlikely that other secondary pupils will return to school before the summer.
“I would stress again that this is all conditional on the rate of transmission of the virus coming down, and the scientific advice saying it is safe to do so. At page 3 of the Schoolzone report it states "The government is very strongly not trusted to tell teachers at all levels when it’s safe to go back to school. The scientific community is trusted by two thirds to say when." It is that self-same scientific community which is providing the key advice.”
Meanwhile, some LAs have already announced that they don’t feel able to re-open schools and many teachers have been in touch with us directly to either express concern about returning or relief that their heads have said they won’t re-open in June.
The government needs schools open so parents can return to work, but even if schools do re-open, only 50% of pupils eligible to return in schools that will have opened are expected, by Schoolzone’s 4000 teacher respondents, to turn up. As the IFS notes, those least likely to return are those who, from an educational point of view, most need to do so. Unions, meanwhile, have been telling members that they are not required to return to school if they do not feel safe. So, while the question for government is whether it’s worth the risk to the economy to keep schools closed, teachers and schools must decide whether it’s worth the risk to re-open. The fact that this has had headline press coverage for four or five days already suggests that this may turn into more of a battle than the govt had expected.