Current Affairs

Mind the Gap: the Debate on Reopening Schools

As the proposed June 1 date for reopening of schools for Reception, Year 1, and Year 6 children looms over us, the tension between the government and teachers’ unions grows. The plan has been criticised by teachers’ unions as “patchy, rushed and woefully inadequate” for reopening as they call for an adequate test and trace system before taking these steps. Some teaching professionals, however, are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of lockdown on the education and wellbeing of their most vulnerable pupils. 

The Impact of the Coronavirus Lockdown

The lockdown has been seen to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities, both in terms of the students attending independent and state schools as well as those at the most deprived schools. The normality for those in the British school system sees wealthier students 1.6 times more likely to get a 5 or above (‘strong pass’) under the new GCSE system whilst disadvantaged students lag half a grade behind per subject and are 11 months behind when starting their education. Lockdown has exacerbated these already stark inequalities with a disparity in access to the technology necessary for online learning, as well as in the confidence that parents have in steering their children’s education. A Sutton Trust report found that three-quarters of parents with a postgraduate degree felt confident in their new roles, in comparison to 60% with undergraduate degrees and less than half of those with just A Level or GCSE qualifications.

These disparities and the fears over both the education and mental wellbeing of children all over the UK are on everybody’s minds. The founder of the Oasis Charitable Trust (one of the four school chains backing the government plan), Steve Chalke MBE, spoke of these concerns highlighting that “the greatest risks for many of our children are being stuck in a council block, with no fresh air, no exercise, little or no nutritious food”. Mr Chalke’s Oasis Trust schools have always been concerned with disadvantaged students: the first Oasis academies were set up in some of the UK’s most deprived areas such as Immingham, Grimsby, and Enfield Lock. In the 53 primary, secondary, and all-through academies under the Oasis umbrella, an average of 45% of pupils rely on Free School Meals – almost triple the national average). Mr Chalke emphasises that many pupils “live in cramped conditions with little digital access”, sharing concerns with the Sutton Trust and the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield. 

Data Sources: Department of Education and the Children’s Commisioner
Infographic by Paulina Maziarska

Speaking to Micha Eversley, co-founder of the Teachers for Teaching campaign, his concern for the pupils to which the pandemic is most likely to cause lasting damage was clear. “Not only are they [teachers’ most disadvantaged students] falling behind academically, many are suffering from hunger, neglect and deteriorating mental health,” he told The Oxford Blue.

Indeed, the children and young people’s counselling service, Childline, reported a four-fold increase in calls concerning the pandemic from 545 by March 18 to 2,274 within a fortnight. Further to this, a report published by the Children’s Commissioner in April emphasised that 830,000 children in England live in homes where domestic abuse had taken place in the last year. 

“The current debate assumes that homes are places of safety and schools are places of risk,” said Mr Eversley, “unfortunately, that’s a middle-class fantasy and we’re highlighting that there are no risk-free options for these students.”

The Path to Reopening Schools: Denmark and Germany

The models for easing lockdown across Europe have been Denmark and Germany. Denmark, reopening schools for those below year five on April 14, had 309 deaths at the time and 170 new daily cases. However, the realities of schooling were by no means “business as usual”. Arrivals, as well as breaks and lunchtimes, were staggered, students were put into group “protective bubbles” with one teacher assigned to each group of about a dozen students, and near-hourly hand washing taking place.

Germany, on the other hand, began reopening in early May with students who were either transitioning from primary to secondary schools or were to sit the A-Level equivalent, Abitur, exams. Similar measures were implemented to Denmark with class sizes being halved and groups alternating between physical and online classes whilst students were told to dress warmly with doors and windows remaining open to improve air circulation. At the time of announcing these changes, Germany had lowered their number of daily new cases to, consistently, below 1,000 and their R0 number had fallen from 0.71 to 0.65. (R0 is the average number of people infected by one person e.g. if the R0 number is 3 then, on average, three people will be infected from the same person).

Can this work for Britain?

In theory, all the proposals of the government – class sizes of 15, two-metre distancing, staggered breaks etc. taken from the conduct of Denmark and Germany – should be reasonable. However, Britain’s handling of the pandemic has lacked the efficacy needed to begin similar reopenings. Denmark went into lockdown and closed its schools on March 12 with 674 cases but no deaths. German schools closed on March 16 when the country had 17 deaths. Britain, in comparison, closed on March 20 with 194 deaths – a comparison of deaths is more revealing here due to Germany’s extensive and Britain’s underwhelming testing until late April.

As of May 17th, Britain’s total cases are at a staggering 243,303 and 34,636 deaths. The number of new daily cases is stubbornly hovering around the 3,000 mark with daily deaths slowly decreasing with 468 people dying after testing positive for the virus on May 16th. 

Source: The New York Times
Source: The New York Times

The prospect of safely opening schools in two weeks’ time on June 1 seems increasingly unimaginable, as the loosening of lockdown on Sunday to unlimited daily exercise and non-essential workers returning has increased Britain’s R0 number to between 0.7 and 1.0. Given that Denmark’s own reproductive number rose from 0.6 to 0.9 when reopening schools, can Britain really risk a spike above 1.0?

Responses of Teachers’ Unions

The National Education Union (NEU) issued a press release on Thursday calling the government’s plan “patchy, rushed and woefully inadequate to support community health”. The NEU claimed in the release that 82% of its members did not support the government’s plans and 91% didn’t feel safe in returning to the classroom. “The welfare of school leaders has been entirely ignored in the last 48 hours and we will stand up for them and all their staff, including cleaners and support staff.”

The NASUWT has also proven to be a vocal opponent of the proposed reopening. In a letter to local authorities, the 300,000 strong union threatened to sue in defence of teachers who may be forced to return to schools.

In response to the government’s proposed reopening plans revealed on May 10, the teachers’ unions AEP, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, NSEAD, Prospect, UNISON, and Unite issued a joint press release on Wednesday. “We all want schools to reopen but that should only happen when it is safe to do so” the release stated. “The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, siblings and relatives, and to the wider community.” 

The release went on to call for refraining from large-scale reopening until a full test and trace scheme was put into place and there was an increase in resources for cleaning and of PPE, as well as “local autonomy to close schools where testing indicates clusters of new COVID-19 cases”.

The British Medical Association, the UK’s largest doctors’ union, has shown support for the teachers whilst Anne Longfield has called for ministers and teachers to “stop squabbling” and put disadvantaged children first, as the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, accused unions of “scaremongering”. In a letter to the NEU on Friday, the BMA council’s chair, Chaand Nagpaul, affirmed that “until we have got case numbers much lower, we should not consider reopening schools.”

The Way Forward

The debate over reopening schools is one of balance. How do we limit transmission from children, who most often display mild or no symptoms, to their families and communities? How do we stop those from the most deprived schools and areas in the country from falling even further behind than is “normal” – in itself a far from ideal concept?

The concern for disadvantaged students is seemingly at the heart of the government’s actions, but the purity of these motives is rightfully questioned by many. Ten years of austerity has created “the perfect storm” of increased living costs, decreased real wages, and cuts to benefits which have put some 4.2 million children in poverty by 2019, an increase from 2.3 million in 2010/11. In terms of concern for disadvantaged pupils, the last decade has also brought broad education spending cuts with a decrease from 5.69% to 4.27% as a share of GDP- a 25 % decline. Many, therefore, question whether this rhetoric employed by the government is simply to enable more to return to work for the sake of the economy, rather than to protect children’s wellbeing.

Whatever the government’s motives, those teachers who are trying to shift attention onto disadvantaged children should be listened to. They know these children best; better than any politician who hasn’t entered a school in the last decade. Mr Chalke has emphasised that he respects the teaching unions’ position on reopening, and all agree that the delicate balancing act of reopening “will need to reflect the reality of the changing situation”, as Mr Eversley said. 

It needs to be recognised that teachers should not have to be heroes. They should not have to put their own health and well-being on the frontlines against this pandemic. This is not what they signed up for. But those teachers who are passionate about child welfare should be listened to and be put at the centre, along with scientific evidence, of any decisions that the government makes regarding reopening schools. So far this has not been the case. 

Nothing can be done, however, without lowering the UK’s daily death and new case figures. As we compulsively follow the daily figures – looking for any light at the end of this seemingly never-ending tunnel – we must keep the fate of disadvantaged children in mind and do our part to keep the numbers down. The damage to these children’s education and well-being now will be carried with them and exacerbate the pre-existing and unacceptable inequalities of our pre-coronavirus society. 

Paulina Maziarska

Paulina (she/her) is a News Reporter at the Oxford Blue, was previously a News Editor on the paper, and has written longer form pieces on Global Affairs for other publications. She is entering her second year as a History and Politics undergraduate at Trinity College.