Weeks of pressure finally cut through to the prime minister on Monday, when he plucked up the courage to deliver some bad news and announced a fresh lockdown in England. The move came less than 36 hours after he had limply conceded that Covid restrictions were “probably about to get tougher” but insisted that “schools are safe”. It was clear that the government’s stance was unsustainable, yet Labour refused to back the closure of all schools in England until hours before the move was announced.
When the government launched legal action against Greenwich council for recommending to its local schools that for the last days of term they stay open only for vulnerable children and those of key workers, something the government has now mandated, Labour did not defend the position taken by the local authority. Instead, a shadow cabinet member reiterated the line that “schools should be the last thing to close” and urged the government to work with the council to change course. At the time, Greenwich had 3,670 pupils and 314 school staff in self-isolation, and two schools in the area had already been forced to close completely owing to lack of staff.
Throughout the crisis, and particularly after Rebecca Long-Bailey, an advocate on behalf of education unions, was replaced by Kate Green as shadow education secretary, Keir Starmer had made it clear that schools remaining open would be a priority for him. “I don’t just want all children back at school next month, I expect them back at school. No ifs, no buts, no equivocation,” was his message to Boris Johnson in mid-August. No reference was made to the unified demands of education unions: for schools to reopen only when safe to do so, with additional resources provided for enhanced cleaning, PPE and risk assessments.
Labour also clashed with unions in July over face coverings in schools, with Green arguing that their use was not necessary after unions called for staff to be allowed to wear them. The party’s position changed the following month, when the World Health Organization issued fresh guidance.
Labour’s approach to education during Covid has differed from its approach in other policy areas. For the most part, the opposition leader has consistently made demands in line with the advice offered by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). When Starmer called for a “circuit-breaker” in England in October, this was based on minutes of a Sage meeting that had taken place in September. He was calling out the government for ignoring the science, rather than following it as promised. A four-week lockdown was announced soon afterwards, making Starmer look like Captain Foresight.
A similar pattern could have been applied to schools. At the end of December, Sage warned that November-style restrictions, with schools open, would be “highly unlikely” to keep the R number below 1 – and that this measure might not be enough to stem the spread of the virus. Not to take on this advice on board, particularly when the increased transmissibility of the new variant was known earlier, was a refusal to accept the reality of the situation. It is compounded by the fact that everyone knew children were repeatedly being sent home to self-isolate after every outbreak, making a mockery of the idea that schools were fully open and able to function as normal anyway.
Although Starmer called for a fresh lockdown on Sunday afternoon without advocating for the closure of all schools, the shadow education minister Wes Streeting criticised the government for being “behind the curve” on schools and “deviating” from the scientific advice. He did not explicitly support closures, but it appeared to be a signal of support for a move in that direction. However, the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, specified the next morning that Labour’s proposed lockdown would “try to get this virus under control and to keep children in class”, and repeated that “schools should be the very last place to close” despite it being clear that the time for the very last place to close had arrived.
By the time Starmer called for closures, he found himself on the back foot, as it was evident to all of Westminster that the government was ready to U-turn on schools. Teachers, school staff and trade unions, as well as Sage, councils, frustrated Labour MPs from across the party and the British public, according to polling, had been proved right, and this left many wondering why Starmer had not listened to them earlier. It seemed to be in stark contrast to the approach taken by the previous Labour leadership, which was not afraid to be seen as close to the unions and was often willing to take cues from them on policy.
The focus should of course be on the prime minister’s chaotic handling of the situation. On Sunday morning he said schools were “safe”; by Monday evening, he told us they were “vectors of transmission”. The blame for this mess lies squarely with Johnson and his government. But Labour can learn from its own mistakes in this debacle. Starmer’s party needs to be braver on education, but also must recognise that frontline workers are the experts. Labour’s affiliation to many trade unions is actually an advantage in this crisis, and one that should be used consistently.