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5 January 2021

Boris Johnson’s decision to open schools for one day put lives at risk

Even though schools were clearly unsafe, the Prime Minister still allowed classrooms to open and Covid-19 to spread.

By Freddie Whittaker

The Prime Minister cut a bullish figure when he appeared on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning. Schools were safe,” he declared, and primary parents should “absolutely” send their children back on Monday, providing they didn’t live in one of those Covid hotspots where schools were, in fact, not safe at all.

Despite Johnson’s assurances, some parents were understandably concerned. We heard reports of families choosing to risk fines and keep their children at home, and honestly who can blame them?

Other parents did send their children in – and no one can blame them either. The Prime Minister had gone on national television and told them it was safe.

Given recent developments, we don’t know whether attendance data for Monday will ever be released, and the government is unaware of how many schools had January inset days. Many schools were also closed to most pupils, either because they were in one of the hotspots, or because too many staff had invoked their right not to work in an unsafe environment. We may never know exactly how many pupils actually went in.

But even with closures and insets, we now have a situation where millions of children were sent into their classrooms for one day, only to be told that evening that it was all completely unnecessary – learning was going remote, effective immediately.

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Why the need for such a drastic U-turn, if schools were apparently so safe? To quote the Prime Minister on Monday night’s briefing, at which the closure of schools to most pupils until mid-February was announced: “Children are still very unlikely to be severely affected by even the new variant of Covid-19. The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.”

From this we can extrapolate that when he said schools were safe, what he actually meant was that schools are low risk for pupils, just not for any adults who might happen to be there or live in the same homes as children who attend school. Johnson himself acknowledged the absurdity of this logic, admitting that that parents whose children were in school yesterday “may reasonably ask why we did not take this decision sooner”.

It seems incredible that the Prime Minister and his team had the foresight to include this statement in remarks for a televised address, but apparently not seriously to consider making his announcement just 24 hours earlier, before any pupil set foot inside a school.

The reckless attitude of Johnson and the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, over the weekend came as a shock to many in the education community, for whom the risks of allowing millions of children to mix freely indoors, if only for one day, were obvious. The inevitability of Monday night’s reversal was clear, it seems, to everyone except those who oversee our schools and indeed our country at the highest level.

The schools community will rightly question why Johnson and Williamson put pupils, their families and school staff in danger for a day longer than they needed to be. But the insult to school staff continues. Over 12 hours after Johnson delivered his announcement in Downing Street, guidance for education settings still hadn’t been updated by the Department for Education. Heads were sent an email late on Monday night, but it was littered with conflicting information and still left many questions unanswered.

The reality for school leaders now is that, having spent most of last week scrambling to implement the government’s confusing and rapidly changing back-to-school plans, then putting themselves personally at risk in school on Monday, they face more sleepless nights trying to make sense of the latest humdinger of a U-turn.

Alas, the shambolic handling of this announcement is emblematic of the government’s coronavirus pandemic response when it comes to education. This is, after all, a government that took weeks to sort out an operational free school meals voucher scheme, and had to be repeatedly dragged kicking and screaming into extending it over school holidays.

This is a government that took even longer to provide a facility for schools to order devices so their most disadvantaged pupils could access remote learning, and that pressed ahead with its disastrous approach to exams in 2020, only to U-turn after a furious backlash on A-level results day.

Most recently, this is a government that launched legal action against Greenwich Council for advising its schools to close early for Christmas, only to tacitly admit this week that councillors were probably right to do so.

Johnson and Williamson have had numerous opportunities to listen to those working on the front line about what is best for schools, but at every turn they have put their fingers in their ears and hedged their bets. The result this week, with education disrupted once more and the risk of thousands more Covid-19 cases after a day of school mixing, is sadly no more than what we have come to expect.