We want the best for children. Right now, that means schools must close

James McAsh

This week, England will plunge once more into a national lockdown. Like in the spring, hospitality and ‘non-essential’ retail will close, people will be encouraged to work from home and social visits to friends and family will be prohibited. But this time all schools will remain fully open. Has Boris Johnson made the right call? Our party and movement is divided. Pre-empting the announcement, Europe’s biggest education trade union the National Education Union (NEU) called for schools to be included in the lockdown. It was not long before its petition had been signed by hundreds of thousands and its campaign had won support from trade union leaders and Labour MPs like John McDonnell. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer has made it clear that he supports the government in keeping schools open. Who is right?

The Labour leader is right on one thing: the government has made an absolute mess of this. Had Johnson announced the national lockdown two or three weeks earlier – when Labour had called for one – it would have encompassed half term. Nine days of total lockdown could have been organised with not a single school day lost. And the infection rate was lower back then; on October 26th there were 23,000 cases in England – roughly 50% more than two weeks before. Acting swiftly and decisively saves lives. It is easier to control the virus if fewer people have it. The problem, of course, is that the government did not do this. We have to deal with the reality we have, not the one we wanted. If rain is falling through your roof you may well wish that it had been fixed while the sun was shining. But that does not help you to fix the leak right now.

The most recent data suggests that 1% of primary-aged children have the virus, which is nine times higher than before schools opened. This means the average primary school has three such children. As I explained for LabourList in September, despite our best efforts: “The harsh reality is that schools are still not properly equipped to deal with the virus. We have endless routines and systems to keep ourselves and the children safe but nothing can change one basic fact: schools are the only places where groups of more than 30 are encouraged to gather inside, with no social distancing and no face coverings.”

The problems in primary schools are eclipsed by those in secondary. Primary ‘bubbles’ can exceed 30 children, but in secondaries they often reach 300. Unsurprisingly, the infection rate for this group has risen by a staggering 50 times since schools opened. It now stands at 2%, the highest rate of any age group, or approximately 20 students in the average secondary school. Fortunately, most children – though not all – survive the virus. But infection means that students must miss school. In many cases, the whole year group closes. And children don’t only mix with each other; they interact every day with education and often transport workers before going home to their family members, who may well be vulnerable.

If schools are not included in the lockdown then the age group with the worst infection rate will mix every day in bubbles of up to 300, without social distancing or personal protective equipment, before going home to their families. You do not need to be an epidemiologist to see that this will fatally undermine the lockdown. But the epidemiologists concur. Government advisor Sir Jeremy Farrar suspects that the lockdown may not work without closing schools. And Independent SAGE has argued that a “hard lockdown”, which includes schools, would take three weeks to control the virus compared to nine weeks if schools remain open. A nine-week lockdown would not end until January 6th. If it were paused during the festive period, which seems likely, it could well run much longer.

None of this is controversial. In the clip where Starmer advocates keeping schools open, he acknowledges that this will prolong the lockdown and render it less effective. He argues this is a necessary cost to keep children in school. Keeping children in school is of course a noble aim, shared by the NEU and education workers everywhere, but sadly this ship has sailed. Across the country, schools and year groups have closed following positive test results – in some cases two or three times already this term. The most recent data showed that 18% of secondary schools were at least partially closed. Attendance in the classes that are open has dropped and will continue to do so as the infection rate rises.

Children are already missing school, the question is whether to organise an orderly and time-limited closure or to continue with the current chaos indefinitely. Closing, alone, will not solve the problem forever but it will buy us vital time. The NEU has spent months calling for government investment in school safety. This means more staff and more space to allow for social distancing, perhaps with the creation of ‘nightingale schools’. It means guaranteeing children and education workers access to testing so that we can avoid chaotic closures. And it means making arrangements for ‘blended learning’, which combines in-school teaching with home learning. The government has so far done none of this.

Schools should be the last places to close. It is absolutely right that we balance our efforts to fight the virus with a commitment to children’s education. Education workers do not need politicians to remind us – we have already dedicated our professional lives to this cause. We want the best for the children in our care, for their families and for the wider community. Right now, that means a short but total lockdown – with schools included. If you agree, support the NEU campaign and write to your MP.

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