June is too soon for our schools

June is too soon for our schools

With schools to re-open to all children in a little over two weeks, I say it is too soon.

Schools have continued to offer support to the children of essential workers throughout the lockdown.  However, at the beginning of June, the government wants to see a phased return of children to school. The return plan starts with children in reception, year one and year six in England on 1st June, followed by other year groups soon after.  Secondary schools would come next, with year ten and twelve students first, the years that are at the start of both GCSE and A-level courses.

To put this into context, reception children are four or five-years-old. Under Department of Education guidelines, maintaining social distancing will be desired, but not expected to happen – well obviously, have they ever seen thirty four- and five-year-olds in the same room?

The proposed solution is to cut class sizes to fifteen from the standard limit of thirty. Teaching assistants will be able to teach a new smaller class to increase the staff numbers.  Quite where these classes will take place in our often over-crowded schools, I am not so sure? 

Assuming that we have a teaching assistant in each class, which with the financial pressure that many schools have faced over recent years is unlikely, we are going to need some great weather in June, as these classes will be on the school fields (which aren’t in the hands of housing developers).

The most significant focus of early years education is building social skills and independence. To return these children to a school environment that keeps them apart from friends could have a negative impact on the school readiness that these years are trying to build. 

Pictures emerging from other European countries that have returned to school, show children eating their lunch alone sat on crosses marked out on the floor two-metres apart, and playing in boxes drawn on the playground for solo play. Putting young children into a situation like this is not helping them.

So, if it is not for the children who is it for?

With the first three months of this year seeing the sharpest contraction since the peak of the 2008 financial crisis, and with far worse expected to come – its the economy, stupid!

Schools provide much-needed childcare to get those parents who have been “enjoying” home-schooling too much back to work. With grandparents, the regular source of childcare for many, remaining unable to see their grandchildren, schools are the route to get the economy moving.

Indeed, with children just as likely to catch Covid-19 as adults, these newly infectious spreaders won’t be able to see Nanny and Grandad for a while. However, they will be coming home each afternoon to their families who are now going out to work each day to mix with co-workers and on public transport. 

All of this puts teachers at risk of being in a working environment that is unsafe.  We demand PPE for our health professionals. We queue to shop in sparsely populated supermarkets, maintaining social distancing from staff, and paying using contactless, while staff stand behind Perspex screens, but we ask our teachers to work in a room of fifteen children with questionable hygiene habits who can’t maintain concentration never mind a two-metre distance.

It is no wonder that teachers’ unions are not happy with the proposals. It is the responsibility of every employer to give their employees a safe working environment. The track record for provision of protection in the NHS and care sector won’t have filled many teachers with the confidence that this next step will be any different.

One of the biggest concerns about all of this is that we are not much further on than we were before this lockdown started.  We have some more ventilators, and some Nightingale Hospitals, with no staff to work in them. We don’t have a reliable and speedy track and trace system in place to squash outbreaks as they occur.  We don’t have regular deep-cleaning regimes embedded in our workplaces and schools. We won’t have a vaccine for some months at the absolute earliest.

If children do return in June, they will be in school for at most six-weeks, and then the six-week summer holiday is upon us, which makes a hasty return even more pointless.  We could look to shorten the summer holiday, something that is long overdue. Still, some children will have been working hard at home, many parents who may have been able to work will have time off booked, and we deserve some relief, especially, if some more socially-distanced outdoor activity is available.

A September start will give twelve weeks to plan re-opening of schools properly. It would allow us to look to how health professionals built extra capacity by creating new hospitals and asking the retired to come back to help.  The school equivalent of Nightingale Hospitals could be ready for a September start, to house the increased number of classes.

Covid-19 has caused considerable damage, but also allows us to rethink how we do things, and our children’s education is one such area. We may also like to consider aligning the academic year with the calendar year. Students will have missed a little more than a whole term. While repeating a year seems too much, a school term is a much more realistic prospect.  Having a transition period would mean that children wouldn’t have been yanked out of school in March and dropped into the next year, with a new teacher.

While no-one would expect children to go without education until a vaccine is available, which may never be, the start of June is far too soon, and the government needs to think again.

Dr Adam Sykes was a school governor for eight years, and a former Conservative councillor before leaving the party in 2019.  These are his personal views and do not represent those of Movement46.