It would be a monumental error to give in to the teaching unions and shutdown our children’s futures

It is one of the few positives of the return of lockdown that, this time, the Government has decided to keep schools open. A U-turn now, in the face of pressure from the teaching unions, would be disastrous.

Many of our young people have lost up to a third of their learning in the last year. Untold damage has been done to this country’s children, and to add insult to injury the impact has been disproportionate. Low income families who do not have access either to a spare laptop or to the independent schools that have reacted so well to the demands of distance learning have suffered the most.

The price of lockdown may come not only in the form of children deprived of vital rungs in the ladder of their life, but in the form of social unrest and civil disobedience. So-called catch up schemes have yet to take place – a failure by the Government that has failed to hit the headlines – and we can only guess at many of the long-term repercussions of the huge hole that Covid-19 has blasted into schooling.

Past decisions have been bad enough for our children. To act to make them even worse by closing schools would be an appalling misjudgment. The damage to our children’s future is equal to the damage to our economy. The difference is we can do something about our children.

There is also the crucial impact on the mental health of children when schools are closed. It is not just that the extraordinary measures prevalent in schools regarding safeguarding mean that they are in a unique position to identify any mental or physical abuse of the children in their care. Of equal importance is the need for children to socialise, learn to socialise and learn by socialising. Ask any child if they are glad to be returning to school and they will answer yes, because it means meeting up with their friends again.

We would be ill-advised to view this with mawkish sentimentality. It is a sentiment that points to the overwhelming importance of friendships and social mixing to a child’s emotional development.

To be fair to the teaching unions, they face a moral choice as demanding as any facing the Government. Do they represent the interests of their members, or do they represent the interests of the children their members serve? It is understandable if they choose to represent their members. Teachers have in many cases to travel to work by public transport, and face classes of children who are infected yet show no symptoms of Covid-19.

Yet one has to ask if the situation facing teachers is markedly different from that facing doctors and nurses. If anything, the risk of infection in schools seems far less. Those in the medical services take the risks they do because of the importance in any civilised society of caring for the sick and the ill. Is caring for our children any less important?

Life would be made a great deal easier for all concerned if there was evidence on how much infection rates are increased by children attending school, and what the rate of infection of teachers is in comparison to the rest of society. Common sense suggests that any such research should report separately on primary and secondary schools, a division as obvious to a teacher as it is apparently invisible to a civil servant.

Advances in the speed at which test results can be notified should make it easier for children attending school to be tested – and aren’t schools the easiest and most efficient testing centres for their children as any?

As it is, the schools with which I am involved, maintained and independent, have outstandingly effective systems for responding to anyone, teacher or child, who has the virus, and limiting the spread of infection. Schools have an advantage over society in general in that they provide an environment where rules can not only be announced, but reinforced. When I last visited the school of which I am proud to be chair of governors, I did not see a single person without a properly-worn mask, or find myself nearer than two metres to anyone.

In the first lockdown when we shut schools we threw our children to the wolves. It is a mistake we must not make again. Our children are our future, and we must keep that future open to them.


Dr Martin Stephen is chair of governors at an inner-city comprehensive

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