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10 June 2020

Gavin Williamson is ducking the tough questions about reopening schools

The Education Secretary should spend less time warring with teaching unions and more time on logistical challenges. 

By Stephen Bush

English pupils will not return to school this academic year, Gavin Williamson has confirmed, while Matt Hancock has thrown doubt on the idea that they could return in September. On the plus side, people will be able to visit Chessington World of Adventures in July. 

The logistical challenges of returning children to schools while observing social distancing and restricting classes to just 15 pupils were predictable and, indeed, predicted by anyone who bothered to look at them. Why wasn’t the Education Secretary one of them? 

After the Grenfell Tower fire, the Department for Education built a whole new school in a matter of weeks in order to avoid students having to return to one at the foot of the tower. The logistical challenges of a return to schools are large, but not insurmountable if you have a committed secretary of state who is across the brief. The problem is, we don’t have one of those: we have a secretary of state who transparently regards their brief as a stepping stone to better things, and preferred to engage in a war of words with the teaching unions rather than getting down to the real nitty-gritty of facilitating a return to schools. Neither Williamson, nor his opposite number, seem to be fully aware of the scale of the logistical challenge or the potential harm done to the prospects of children and our long-term societal health due to the continuing closures. 

The long-term challenges thrown up by that failure are considerable. Most pupils are facing six months out of the classroom, and while some have been able to take up online classes, not all have managed to do so. Equipping schools to repair that damage sooner rather than later is the single biggest and most important challenge the government has. Williamson and the government’s outriders have been very good at talking up the social justice implications of continued school closures in order to dismiss criticisms and serious questions about the logistical challenges they need to overcome to get schools open. It would be good if Williamson could at least do an impression of caring about those implications enough to overcome those difficulties and not merely dismiss them.

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