Over the course of this grim pandemic the government has performed enough u-turns to make a woodpecker’s head spin.
Free schools meals, mass testing, masks, furlough, exams, Christmas, one exasperatingly predictable volte-face after another, accompanied by the inevitable, gradual erosion of faith in ministers to chart a course out of this crisis.
Now we face the latest (but certainly not the last) u-turn over school closures, which may mark a new personal record for the Prime Minister: a mere 36 hours will have lapsed between yesterday’s Andrew Marr appearance and last night’s press conference.
Scotland has coughed, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today announcing new curbs, and England will imminently catch the cold.
Covid-19 is like the light from a distant star: action taken now won’t take effect for the best part of a month, hospitalisations and deaths today stem from infections contracted three weeks ago.
If education was truly the “priority” the Prime Minister insists it to be, Tier 5 or a nationwide lockdown ought to have been implemented before Christmas.
Should education be put above all else? There is certainly a case to be made, one that extends beyond pupil loneliness or parental inconvenience. A November Ofsted report revealed that “many leaders in schools of all types thought that learning losses were extensive”.
In the early years foundation stage, they expressed concern that children’s speaking and listening skills were “weaker than usual”.
The difference in attainment between children from affluent and poorer backgrounds is less a gap than a chasm, one that may never be narrowed in their lifetimes. Seven per cent of kids don’t have access to the internet: remote learning is a vain hope, even if government does hand them a brand-spanking new laptop.
During the first lockdown, children from better off families were spending 30% more time on home learning than those from poorer families.
And most parents are no more teachers than they are doctors or lawyers. Sure, they could administer first aid or draft a basic contract, but most couldn’t explain the difference in pronunciation of “know” vs “now” to a four-year-old or detail the dissolution of the monasteries to a teenager any more than they could diagnose cancer or unpack the Magna Carta.
This will have long-term impacts on our economy. Studies have suggested that each additional year of schooling could raise incomes by as much as 10 per cent, especially in the early years. I have little faith that, once closed, schools will reopen after the half-term break – with the vaccine rollout in full swing it is surely more likely parents will be told: just one more push until Easter!
But missing out on three months of schooling could mean a generation will earn 2 per cent less than they would otherwise have done throughout their working lives. If someone was to earn, say, £1.2m over the course of their lifetime, this would amount to a loss of £24,000, or £24bn for every million young people now missing out.
As for parents, their productivity will plummet, grinding our limping economy to a halt. If three million adults (out of about 33 million in employment) can only earn half of what they would normally do for three months, that could be another £11billion in lost income. In practice, there could be several million parents who will not be able to work at all.
Despite the above, teaching unions have put the needs of their members above those of pupils. Teachers are being actively encouraged not to return to classrooms, and among unions and councils there is an insistence on viewing this issue as an open-shut debate.
Measures that might enable schools to reopen and keep everyone safe have barely been considered: if we can knock up a Nightingale hospital in a few weeks, why not a Nightingale school?
Unionism is anathema to innovation. We should be exploring all avenues to continuing education: increased funding for summer schools, opening schools over the weekend, mass testing. Instead we are trapped in a dated discourse that will hamper the prosperity of future generations and make this crisis even more miserable than it needed to be.