From 1st June, schools in England will start to open their doors more widely to take in a larger number of pupils. Up until now, during the pandemic lockdown, it’s been children of essential workers and vulnerable children only. Now, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, wants them to include reception, year one and year six.
To do so, there will need to be a review and reform of the physical layout of the facilities: classrooms will accommodate only half the number of socially-distanced pupils, play areas will be larger and less crowded, canteens and toilets will need greater supervision; but the fact remains that primary school children will be meeting and mingling in greater numbers than for some months. This is the inevitable consequence of schools reopening and the gregarious nature of our young children.
The teaching unions, with the NEU in the worst corner, have squared up to government to say that their members must not be put at risk, any risk, in returning children to the classroom. In doing so, they are not putting first the interests of the children for whose welfare they are responsible. And to fight negatively against government policy in order to try to carve out some sort of role to demonstrate they have some continuing purpose in the current day is to misunderstand the concept of child welfare and where the responsibility for opening decisions ultimately lies.
All too often, the media like controversy, so they will pitch as a disagreement between heads a news report including an interview with a headteacher of one school that is opening and another that has decided not to do so. But that is to miss the point, the two headteachers, whilst they may have reached different conclusions, are in fact in fundamental agreement.
It is not for politicians in Whitehall or County Hall to decided when and how schools should open. That decision is professionally, and legally, a matter for the headteacher at local level having taken into account advice and information from reputable sources, and having considered guidance, having undertaken their own risk assessment and decided for their own school, and the children for whom it cares, whether the risks can be sufficiently mitigated that, on balance, it is safe to reopen, for specified groups of students, and, if so, on what basis.
That is the process of risk assessment, management and communication that lie at the heart of good decision-making.
Government is right to support, encourage and empower headteachers to make these decisions so that we can get our children learning again.
Chris Whitehouse is a Director of the Westminster Education Forum, a former Youth Policy lead for S Bucks District Council and Children’s Services Cabinet Member of the Isle of Wight County Council. He has served as a governor of three schools, including as chair of governors of one.
The Whitehouse team are experts in education, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of educational institutions and organisations, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union. More information about our education policy experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.