A judgement call like no other

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The science on school re-opening is reassuring, but it is not immutable. In the end, it is a judgement call and schools must be given the flexibility to do what is in the best interests of their communities, says Geoff Barton

We are hearing a lot about “the science” at the moment. This is because we all want the certainty we hope science can offer us that it is safe to go back to school.

But one of the most useful interventions on this subject came from Dr Hilary Jones on Good Morning Britain, when he said the public must get used to living without scientific clarity.

This is not because there is any fault with the science or the scientists, but because Covid-19 is, as we know, a “novel” virus, a new strain of coronavirus, and so knowledge about exactly how it works is limited and evolving.

The trouble with that is, of course, that we are having to take very important decisions on this basis, and one of these is the vexed question of when and how schools should return.

It is why we see different policies in different countries, despite the fact that all of them will be looking at the same science. Everybody is making their best assessment of what to do, trying to balance safeguarding public health with the need to educate children and boost economic activity.

Which brings us to the very controversial policy decision in England to open schools and colleges to more children and young people from June 1, and in particular a significant increase in primary children, including the youngest age groups.

On Friday (May 15), I attended a meeting with the government’s scientific and medical advisors, and here in a nutshell is what they said.

  • There is clear evidence that the risk of children suffering severe symptoms is much lower than in adults. It is believed they are less susceptible to contracting coronavirus than adults, and there is some evidence that if they do so the risk of them transmitting the virus to other individuals may be lower than for adults, but the data on that is limited.
  • The main driver of severe symptoms is age, particularly for adults in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. The vast majority of primary parents are below the age of 45, so at relatively low risk, but a number of school staff are above 55 and the risk is elevated to a certain extent for this age group.
  • Analysis shows that the impact of the current provision in schools – for key worker and vulnerable children – on the reproduction rate of the virus is marginal, and can be kept below 1 if the number of pupils is increased alongside control measures. These include effective testing and contact tracing, limiting numbers in schools, concentrating on younger age groups who are less likely to socially mix than older children, and keeping children in separate groups, so-called “social bubbles”.
  • There is no evidence that teachers as a profession are at high risk from the virus. The average mortality rate among people of working age is 9.9 per 100,000 men and 5.2 per 100,000 women. The corresponding figures among teachers are 6.7 for men, and 3.3 for women.

To us, this seems reasonably reassuring, in the context that nothing is wholly reassuring during a global pandemic. The rationale for the approach proposed by the government makes more sense than it might have done at first glance, and on the other side of the equation is the increasing damage being done to the learning of children who are out of school, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

So, we have said that we are cautiously supportive of the government’s approach, with some important caveats. We think it is totally unrealistic to expect that all primary schools will be able to open to all eligible children full-time from June 1.

The reality of implementing complex processes in a short timescale, the constraints on physical space, and the availability of staff who may be self-isolating or in vulnerable categories, will necessitate different timings and approaches, and we are asking government to recognise that fact and be more flexible.

And we have made the point on several occasions that it is ultimately a matter for schools, trusts and governing bodies to decide whether it is safe to open and the approach they take, and we will fully back them up on that decision.

There are ideas for extra safeguards we are raising with government, such as making available a weekly report on the reproduction rate of the virus by region, with a trigger point to close schools if it rises above an acceptable level, and the possibility of home tests for a sample of children to provide a check on cases of infection which are asymptomatic.

And all of this is predicated on a final decision being taken by the government on May 28 – on the basis of the most up-to-date scientific assessment – about whether to press ahead with June 1 or delay the timetable.

Not everybody, it is fair to say, responded in the same way to Friday’s meeting. There are calls for more evidence, more assurance, more measures.

And we received quite a bit of flak ourselves for our cautiously supportive approach. We fully understand those concerns, we absolutely do, and there is no complacency whatsoever about this issue.

But if we are looking for absolute certainty, an evidence base that is immutable and set in stone, protective measures that cover every possible risk and eventuality that could ever arise, then we will, frankly, not be re-opening schools for a very long time, and probably not until a vaccine is available.

And, of course, the educational costs of doing this would be immense and extremely damaging.

So that is the dilemma, and this is basically a judgement call like no other.

It is always the case that we live in an imperfect world, but just now it is a world which is particularly imperfect.

The science cannot answer all our questions, and provide us with cast-iron reassurance, not in this context. But, as far as it is possible to do so in these circumstances, the rationale behind the government’s approach does stack up, and, with caution, care, and flexibility, should allow us to bring more children back into school as safely as possible.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information

  • DfE: Overview of scientific information on coronavirus (COVID-19), May 15, 2002: https://bit.ly/2X9QMVA
  • DfE: Actions for educational and childcare settings to prepare for wider opening from June 1, May 11, 2020: https://bit.ly/2WoJjTa
  • DfE: Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings, May 11, 2020: https://bit.ly/2yN0pkQ


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