Schools return: a window into the Government’s COVID headache

By Scott Harker

Schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland begin to return this week marking, for many, the end of the summer holidays. Students and teachers in Scotland returned to the classroom two weeks ago; a milestone that is being blamed for a spike in cases north of the border.

While the Government has been keen to trumpet the positives of the return, it is also serving to raise the profile of the challenges that the pandemic has caused to our education system; both in the immediate future and in the longer term.

The more immediate challenge is to avoid, or at least to manage, a similar rise in cases to that which has happened in Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon attributed the rise in Scotland to the increased number of interactions created by the return of schools.

Concern is only heightened by the relatively stricter rules in place in Scotland, where students are required to remain socially-distanced and to wear masks indoors. Schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are returning with relaxed social distancing measures and a requirement that students only need to self-isolate in the event of a positive COVID-19 test result. Regular tests will remain in place for students, with the Government pinning its hopes on this controlling any rise in cases.

In England, one of the measures designed to allay fears of a surge in COVID-19 cases is to employ carbon-dioxide monitors in schools. These are designed to identify areas where the airflow is limited. While many have praised the measure, the National Association of Head Teachers has asked for clearer guidance as to what should be done in the event that areas of poor circulation are found within school buildings.

Despite the caution, the Government’s position on returning chimes with many parents and teachers in that it represents a significant step back to ‘normality’. A return to in-person lessons and socialisation with friends will come as a boost both to students’ attainment and happiness.

If the Government can claim that it has overcome one challenge in achieving a return to normality in the classroom, it faces another education headache in the form of a growing need for additional funding. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has calculated that by next year, spending per pupil in England will be 1-2% lower in real terms than it was 2009/10. This is despite an additional £7 billion invested by the Government since 2019. School leaders have suggested that unless the gap is plugged, schools will need to make cuts on top of those made since 2010.  

This situation is likely to hamper the Government’s efforts to drive a recovery from the pandemic, not least as it faces a variety of competing pressures, perhaps more so now than ever. In the last fortnight alone there have been calls for the Government to step in to maintain the pension triple lock, to fill gaps in local government funding and to restore the uplift to Universal Credit.

Given its commitment to ‘levelling up’ and governing for the wider UK, the Government will once again need to find the funds to fill the gap not just in terms of money, but also in terms of its rhetoric and reality.

In a sense, the pupils aren’t the only ones returning to the classroom. Once Gavin Williamson’s tour of the newsrooms is over, he faces Education questions in the House of Commons next Monday.