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17 June 2020

Failing to reopen schools is the most catastrophic decision the government has made so far

Ministers’ failures will damage pupils’ educational performance and the economic health of the country.

By Stephen Bush

When did the Grenfell Tower disaster start? The fire began a little after midnight on 14 June 2017, with an electrical fault in a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor. But the disaster was already under way. Kitchen fires are not rare events, so the block had been built to contain any conflagration within a single flat.

Residents had been told, both on the night itself and over many years, that in the event of a blaze, they should stay in their flats, where they would be safe. But somewhere between the tower’s completion in 1974 and its destruction in 2017, the ­building became a firetrap: advice intended to protect residents became lethal. Thanks to the decorative cladding installed during the block’s renovation, a structure built to contain a fire, instead, spread it.

Very little of the work that politicians do genuinely takes place in the present day. They navigate the consequences of mistakes made in the past while attempting to avoid creating greater disasters in the future. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s major political mission is to avoid the 2020s and 2030s becoming decades of major economic turmoil, to deliver a swift end to the recession and a return to something like normality. His hands are tied by the government’s earlier failure to lock down and close borders quickly, which would have resulted in a smaller number of coronavirus cases and would have made easing the lockdown a less risky affair in the present.

But the biggest and most catastrophic decision in this government’s life has probably already been made: the failure to re-open schools in England. In the short term, schools remaining closed exerts a heavy mental health toll on parents and children. In the long term, it will damage the educational performance of pupils and with it the overall economic health of the country.

As with kitchen fires, the risks and consequences of school closures have always been known. During the long summer holidays, the gap between the most and least well-off grows so that disadvantaged children return in September five weeks behind from where they were at the start of the summer holidays. That is one reason why Sage – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, an ad hoc body of scientists that advises British governments – counselled at the start of the pandemic against school closures.

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The dangers of coronavirus forced the government to rethink that approach, but the serious risks of closing schools meant that getting them open ought to have been a priority. Doing so required an energetic and driven secretary of state. The good news is that Gavin Williamson is driven. The bad news is that he isn’t particularly driven by the demands of his day job. He owes his position to his unparalleled skill as a party organiser – he was a formidable chief whip and a crucial component of Boris Johnson’s parliamentary operation during his leadership bid. He is not the first minister to have won a senior role because of the favours he is owed, nor will he be the last. It just so happens that he holds the job at a time of national importance. Before the crisis, policy wonks at the Department for Education (DfE) despaired that Williamson’s interests extended only to whether a school is in a marginal constituency with a sitting Conservative MP.

Williamson appeared to believe that the biggest obstacle to reopening lay in the teachers’ unions, perhaps because fighting them meant he could further his long-term aim of appearing in the Daily Mail as ­frequently as possible. But the National Education Union’s concerns were primarily about health risks – while the challenge of reopening schools is largely logistical.

The DfE’s guidance is that classes must be no bigger than 15 – given that the standard class size is around 30, this means essentially doubling the number of classes in each school. There are neither enough buildings nor enough teachers to meet that challenge. The Welsh government plans to reopen schools part-time from 29 June; while in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has faced mounting criticism for keeping them shut until the autumn term. But they all face the same problem: a wider reopening requires greater spending and hiring, which can only be initiated from Whitehall.

But while the logistical problems are large, they are not insoluble with sufficient will or clarity from the secretary of state. After the Grenfell fire, the then education secretary Justine Greening oversaw construction of a new school in nine weeks, in order to replace the one at the foot of the tower. In the present, the Treasury is paying the salaries of private tutors whose work has dried up due to the lockdown – they could instead be paying the salaries of private tutors to teach. School buildings are stretched to capacity – but everything else, from dance halls to libraries, is still shut. The resources to hold bigger, socially distanced classrooms are available. It merely requires the secretary of state to take the lead.

Until recently, Williamson’s failures have occurred away from public view. The pandemic is seen, first and foremost, as a health and economic crisis, which means that Sunak and the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, are the ones in the spotlight alongside the Prime Minister. They are dealing with the fire that has already started. But it is ­Williamson who has the job of preventing an even bigger health and economic crisis, from the longer term consequences of school ­closures. He shows little sign of ­having the necessary grip to do so, and Johnson, aware of ­Williamson’s political significance, shows even less of an appetite to bring in someone else to do it for him.

The art of successful government is to identify and remove the risk before the fridge-freezer explodes, not after the deadliest conflagration since the Blitz. The failure to reopen schools shows that it is an art this government has yet to master. 

This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars