As the American historian John M Barry has taught us: “When you mix politics and science, you get politics.”
Quite. We get politics when what we really crave is some sense of scientific reassurance.
After all, a frequently repeated refrain in the coronavirus pandemic has been the importance of “following the science”.
There’s nothing new in this. For many years, policymakers, think tanks, and assorted experts have emphasised the need for evidence-based solutions to thorny problems. And few of us would disagree with such a noble principle.
But, in practice, following the science and basing policy on evidence prove less straightforward than we might expect. In the pandemic, for example, it has raised the question of which scientific evidence we should follow, because it is clear that the scientists – the people we revere – do not always themselves agree.
Coronavirus: Applying the science to real-world problems
It’s reminded us that the simple notion of some all-encompassing scientific truth is hopelessly naïve. It’s not just science: it’s which science, and whose science?
Then there is the way that the evidence is applied to real-world issues, which often does not seem to add up. Here are some examples of what I mean.
1. The latest lockdown
The prime minister announces a new national lockdown early in January, having sent primary school children back to school for a single day, and having insisted just the day before that it was perfectly safe to do so.
Now, in that grating sub-Churchillian tone we’ve become accustomed to, he says that schools must close the next day to all but vulnerable children and the children of key workers, as part of a national response to Covid infection rates.
Meanwhile, the public are urged to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.
It quickly becomes clear, however, that demand for school places is much higher than in the first national lockdown. Primary schools, in particular, report significant numbers of children in attendance.
The government, however, provides no guidance on what is a safe upper limit on attendance, and apparently sees no contradiction between this lack of guidance, and the instruction to stay home and save lives.
How then was this guided by the science?
Shortly before Christmas, the government tells secondary schools that it expects them to set up mass testing centres to deliver rapid lateral flow tests from the start of the spring term.
It is obviously impossible for all schools in this timeframe to recruit and train the staff required to run these centres, and the requirement to do this at the scale envisaged is in any case overtaken by the national lockdown.
Under the system of self-isolation, all close contacts would be at home. However, if rapid lateral flow tests are used as an alternative, then these young people and staff would be in school, including those who have false-negative test results.
It’s hard to see how this could be as safe as the previous system of bubbles and self-isolation, and scientists themselves seem increasingly at odds about the efficacy of these tests. The science is elusive.
Reports begin to circulate in the media that the government is considering a plan to help pupils to catch up on lost learning by extending the school day and introducing a programme of national summer schools.
There is no explanation as to why this particular strategy is felt to be the most effective approach, or whether it would, in fact, be counterproductive to grind tired children through extra hours and a longer summer term.
And since we know that summer schools struggle to attract the children who would benefit from them the most, it’s hard to see how they would work, unless they were mandatory.
But mandatory attendance during the summer holidays would have to be enforced by fines for non-attendance, and this would most likely cause uproar among parents, many of whom may be craving some time with their family beyond the restrictions of a lockdown.
Neither do all the baying calls for extending school days and school terms reflect the evidence on learning strategies in the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which says that summer schools and extending school time are low-impact approaches. They are great for extracurricular clubs and activities, but it is hard to see how they could be the mainstay of a national catch-up programme.
Is the government seriously considering this approach, or are the media reports the product of briefings designed to provoke a fight with the teacher unions? And how does any of this align with the evidence?
The government repeatedly rules out the use of rota systems in schools as a way of minimising transmission of the coronavirus.
Last summer, as schools reopen to certain year groups, primary schools are specifically told that they should not use rotas, even though this would make it easier to accommodate reduced class sizes in line with the safety measures in force at that time.
It would enable more young people to have at least some face-to-face contact with a teacher, even if it’s on a week-on/week-off basis.
In fact, in the autumn term, the government’s own contingency framework starts off with rotas as one of the options in the event of restricted opening. Later on that term, however, this option is removed. Suggestions that schools should be able to use rotas towards the end of the autumn term are apparently off the table.
And yet, last April, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) modelled nine different options for school opening, and a paper concluded that a weekly or fortnightly rota system was “likely to be the most effective strategy to make school attendance normative.”
So much for following the science.
This is a time when we’re all craving some certainty, and I suspect we thought that science gave us that. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the truth of the words of American fantasy writer RA Salvatore: “Those who rely on certainties are certain to be disappointed.”
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders