'Scapegoating schools? This government is a shambles'

The government is shifting blame away from its failings by whipping up an anti-schools media storm, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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Once upon a time, “shambles” meant a butcher’s slaughterhouse. Now it’s the way we are governed.

Take this week – one of confusion and sniping over rising Covid-related pupil absence, after statistics showed more than 375,000 children out of school. 

Of these, 279,000 pupils were self-isolating because of potential contact with a positive Covid case in their school and may not have had the virus themselves. Incidentally, it’s worth noting that 57,000 were self-isolating because of potential contact outside school.

I wrote about this issue last week, saying that we cannot go on like this – the rules need to change, and the government has to get its act together and come up with a plan. 

At the time, I naively thought that everybody recognised that schools and colleges were simply following the rules provided in government guidance about managing Covid cases. These tell them to work with the Department for Education advice service or Public Health England local protection teams to identify close contacts and ask them to self-isolate.

Covid and schools: A kick in the teeth over contact tracing

But, according to media reports, Downing Street apparently thinks schools are being overzealous and sending home too many pupils.

That felt to me like a pretty cheap shot, designed to shift the blame away from the government’s own failings and its lack of any coherent plan by whipping up an anti-schools media storm. To the school and college staff who have spent endless hours – often during evenings, weekends and school holidays – painstakingly contact tracing, it must have felt like a kick in the teeth.

They have effectively been on the public health front line during this pandemic – even though they are education rather than public health experts. They have done everything asked of them and more – because they think it is the right thing in order to minimise transmission of the virus and keep their schools and colleges open.

Scapegoating them is, frankly, appalling, and I have written to the prime minister to ask him to publicly recognise that schools and colleges are following government rules and to express his support.

As well as the sniping, we’ve had confusion about when bubbles and contact tracing will end and what sort of measures will replace them. This confusion has been largely fuelled by an extraordinary lack of clarity and precision from both the education secretary and the prime minister.

But I think the situation is as follows. It seems pretty unlikely that the existing rules will be scrapped in time to make any meaningful difference this side of the summer holidays. Assuming changes are announced to come into effect from 19 July, as is being widely trailed, this would leave only a couple of days at most before the end of term for most schools and colleges. 

So, we are really talking about what happens in September. The issue is what replaces the current control measures.

What will happen in September?

Option 1 is to have no restrictions at all, and to treat Covid like flu. The argument in favour of this is that the adult population will be vaccinated by then and life will be more or less back to normal. 

However, one suspects that scientists and public health experts will want to assess the impact of the vaccine in the real world before scrapping all controls, and will be wary about new variants developing.

Option 2 is to offer vaccines to pupils. The argument in favour is that doing so has huge potential to reduce disruption and render other measures unnecessary. 

However, the benefits would clearly need to outweigh any risks, and vaccines are being considered only for children aged 12 and upwards, not for primary children.

A little while ago, there were reports that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation was minded against offering vaccines to pupils. Since then, all has gone frustratingly quiet, and there is still no decision.

Option 3 is to replace self-isolation for close contacts with daily contact testing. The argument in favour is that this would suppress transmission while keeping children in school. 

Children or staff identified as close contacts of positive cases would take a lateral flow test every morning for the next seven days. If they test negative, they can be in school; if they test positive, they must stay at home. 

However, it still isn’t clear exactly how this system would operate, and it seems likely to apply only to secondary schools and colleges, again not to primary schools.

As a footnote, it is worth spending a moment on the subject of bubbles, which have become conflated in the media with the process of contact tracing and self-isolation. The point of bubbles is to reduce mixing and make it easier to identify contacts of positive cases. It is separate from the system of requiring close contacts to self-isolate. 

Bubbles could be abandoned or kept in any of the three options above, although the balance of the argument in each case varies.

And, finally, there’s the question of other mitigating measures, including improved ventilation and the old chestnut of face masks, and what part they might play in future. 

Providing additional funding for schools and colleges to improve their ventilation systems is surely a no-brainer, particularly once the weather turns again and leaving classroom windows and doors open becomes less comfortable. 

The use of face masks, as ever, is more problematic. It may be difficult to sustain an argument for face masks in classrooms if they are not worn anywhere else in society, and the political tide in government appears to be against them. 

To be fair to the government, as will be apparent from all of the above, this is not an easy set of options to navigate. 

What is unforgivable, however, is that it has left it so late in the day to come up with a plan, and that it has presided over a week of unhelpful confusion and sniping. It’s yet another mess that didn’t need to happen, and marks yet another squalid low point in the trust and confidence that the education sector now has in the government. 

Shambles is indeed the word.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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