The government has pitted England's schools against health. It didn't have to | James McAsh

As a teacher, I am used to doing the same thing over and over. I must have taught the four times table hundreds of times, and I can’t imagine how often I’ve asked who needs to go to the toilet.

The government likes to repeat itself, too. Once again, we are debating the relative merits of closing schools. According to ministers, there is an impossible trade-off between educating children and keeping adults safe. But this is a sleight of hand. There is, of course, a genuine tension between these goals – but the stakes need not be so high. Schools could be safer, and home learning could be more effective. It’s the responsibility of the government to make this happen.

Following mounting pressure, yesterday the government announced secondary schools would remain closed for an extra two weeks across tier 4 areas, along with some primary schools in areas with high infection rates. The infection rate among children has risen steadily since September. By the last week of term, 3% of secondary-aged children had the virus: one pupil per class. Primary children are not far behind: their 2% rate is considerably higher than all adults over 25. This is despite children having a lower propensity to catch the virus. The worst may be yet to come: scientists fear the new strain spreads more easily between children.

Despite the government’s frequent insistence that schools stay open during the last year, it has done almost nothing to keep us safe. Schools are the only places where groups of 30 or more mix indoors with no PPE or social distancing. Is it any surprise they’ve become hotbeds of infection?

This is the argument for keeping schools closed a little longer. There was a lot of social mixing during the Christmas period, including among people from different areas. Given that schools are a major engine for virus transmission, we should keep them closed until the virus is better controlled.

Michael Gove – a former education secretary and the longtime villain of the teaching profession – has reminded us that “there are trade-offs” in this debate. Of course, life is full of trade-offs. Time or money. Quality or quantity. Having your cake or eating it. In this case, the trade-off is between controlling the virus and protecting children’s learning.

In one sense, Gove is right: the safest option is for schools to close, but this comes at a great cost to children’s education – after all, online learning is not an adequate replacement for face-to-face teaching. But this is a superficial response. It wrongly implies that the government cannot shape the choices on offer. In reality, it could improve the terms of the trade-off.

First, instead of lamenting the weaknesses of online learning, they could do something to improve it. During the first lockdown, I prepared activities for my students to complete at home. Some did them, but many did not. The obstacle was generally a lack of resources: no laptop, no reliable internet connection. Why is it that, nine months into the pandemic, the government has still not guaranteed these for every pupil who needs them?

Second, the government could do a lot more to make schools safe. For instance, secondary schools could introduce “blended learning”, where children are on-site one week and learning from home the next. Activities best suited for the classroom, such as group work or class discussions, can take place there, whereas those better suited for online learning, such as independent written work, can be done at home. Teachers and education staff would still be in school every day, but there would be half as many pupils – this would reduce the risk of an outbreak and increase the capacity for social distancing.

Blended learning may not work quite as well for younger children, but “Nightingale” schools would. These are another method for improving school safety, so far ignored by the government. There are so many empty buildings available. They could be repurposed as schools to create more room for children to be socially distanced during their lessons.

At a minimum, the government could invest in school infrastructure. For instance, we know that the rate of transmission is lower in well-ventilated rooms. But in many schools the only source of ventilation is to have the windows open. Teachers are faced with another avoidable trade-off: Covid or frostbite.

Finally, the government could prioritise vaccinations and regular testing for those in schools. Since September, there have been many days where pupil absences in England have risen above 10%. Without adequate testing, whole year-groups are sent home for two weeks after an outbreak. If the children could be tested quickly, most could be back in school within a couple of days. If the adults in a school were vaccinated, this would address absences among staff. In the final week of term, half of my team was absent and the rest of us were stretched to breaking point. These are avoidable problems.

Gove is right that we face a trade-off between safety and learning. But often a binary choice like this conceals the third option: spending money. With some investment, the government could improve both sides of the trade-off. They could provide children with safer learning at school and better learning at home.

  • James McAsh is a primary school teacher in Brixton, south London, and a Labour party councillor in Southwark


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