Government still trying to bluff the virus in schools

No mask, no distancing - Boris Johnson in September, claiming schools were safe

By Charlie Wilson

If you want a metaphor for the way a virus spreads in a school setting, think of the game “it”. In fact, some years ago, the most popular form of this at my school was called “lurgis” – the normal form of the game being enhanced by the edgy new variant of being passed a nasty disease. The phrase “Urgh! You got lurgis!” sometimes led to fights. And here we are…

On 22 December SAGE told the government that – with the new more rapid spreading variant of the virus – it would be impossible to keep the R rate below 1 if they reopened schools for face-to-face learning in January. True to form, instead of accepting reality the government tried to bargain with it; announcing a staggered start for secondary schools with only exam years groups going in initially and the others returning mid-month; supposedly made secure by an undeliverable promise of wholesale testing carried out by an army of non-existent volunteers, using a flow test that is 50% accurate. Watertight. Primary schools were set to open en masse on 4 January. 

On Saturday 2 January head teachers’ unions – NAHT and ASCL – took legal action to force the disclosure of the evidence for the government’s advice. Repeated requests for this information from education unions have not been forthcoming; the government preferring to move in mysterious ways. 

On Sunday 3 January Boris Johnson was blithely assuring his TV audience that “schools are safe”; ignoring both SAGE advice and the experience of the Autumn term, during which:

  • secondary age students had become the fastest age group for COVID infections, with primary age pupils beginning to catch up and schools the most common location for outbreaks
  • the impact not only of the very large “bubbles” considered acceptable in school settings (rule of six times 40 in an average secondary year group of 240 students) 
  • but all of the journeys in and out, and all of the interactions that take place on them 
  • and all of the impact of going home to families – sometimes large multi-generational families living in overcrowded conditions. 

On the same day the NEU held a huge online meeting – possibly the largest union meeting ever held – advising members to send letters to their head teachers citing Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act which evoke a worker’s right not to work in an unsafe environment. A number of Local Authorities – and schools due to open – shared this assessment and issued their own advice accordingly. Others went along with the government line – one or two – in a fit of misguided bravado – even proposing to hold in person INSET days for the whole staff on the first day. The DFE wrote to Heads saying that they were seeking legal advice to challenge Section 44 letters – which indicates that they were not yet confident they could get away with doing so. 

On Monday 4 January – as a patchy reopening took place – the DFE held a morning briefing that schools would stay open and summer exams would take place as planned. On the same morning Shadow Education Minister Kate Green stayed in step, explaining on Radio 4 that Keir Starmer’s belated call for a national lockdown on Saturday afternoon was designed to keep schools open. “We’ve always said schools should be the very last place to close. We’re seeing the opportunity of a national lockdown, on the terms that I’ve just tried to describe, to enable us to try to get this virus under control and to keep children in class and learning.” The memo from SAGE seems to have passed the front bench by. Or, maybe they were closing their eyes and crossing their fingers while touching wood and hoping that something – “a miracle” – might turn up in the same way the government was.

But you can’t bargain with reality.

By mid-afternoon it was becoming apparent that Johnson was going to pull a drastic u turn and close all schools from the following day. This must have seeped through to Keir Starmer, who nevertheless when asked whether Primary schools should go to online learning from Tuesday refused to simply say “yes”. This shows that subsequent comments in the Guardian and elsewhere that Johnson U-turned under pressure from Starmer – while playing down the role of the education unions – are the opposite of the truth.

Johnson’s announcement was almost surreal, in the way these things are increasingly becoming, with him solemnly informing us of the facts that we have been telling him for weeks and he has been denying. Schools – “safe” on Sunday – were “not unsafe” but “may” be “vectors for the spread of the disease”. The weaselling around with softening terminology was clearly designed to imply that he had not consciously lied the previous morning, but the scale of the climb down was enormous.

This was followed on Wednesday 6 January with Gavin Williamson’s announcement that this year’s GCSE and A level exams would have to be scrapped and replaced with teacher assessment.

The same afternoon it was being reported in the Evening Standard that Conservative backbenchers were calling for Williamson to be axed in the next reshuffle because he “lacked the clout” to keep schools open. Given that they know that keeping schools open will ensure that R remains above 1, they know that infections are rising rapidly, hospitalisations are at an all-time high, and deaths are following, with over 1,000 a day for the last week; it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this is not that important to them. 

No doubt in an attempt to curry favour with them, Williamson has significantly widened the definition of “essential worker” to enable more students to attend in person; and, as an alternative to investing in enough laptops, has sought to include students without the necessary equipment to do online learning in the list of those that can attend. As these are also likely to be the students whose families are most vulnerable to the virus, the government’s priorities are laid bare. A survey of Head teachers by the NAHT revealed much higher attendance in primary schools this week than during the lockdown in Spring. A third of schools in the survey had between 20% and 30% of students on site, a further fifth had between 30 and 40%, a sixth had even more. 

Combine this with the increased infectiousness of the virus and we have a recipe for disaster. The whole of society has reason to be grateful to the continuing fight that the education unions – especially the NEU – have led on this, but it’s clear that the struggle continues and will have to be part of the fight for a Zero COVID strategy to confront the government’s idea that simply vaccinating the most vulnerable is enough to reopen and take our chances.