School closures, public health and keeping children and communities safe

No school leader wants their premises to close, but they also understand the priority of public health and the need to keep children and communities safe. In view of the significant pressures that the NHS is now facing in many areas of the country, a further period of school closure may be unavoidable. This is especially the case if it is true that school children are more susceptible to the new Covid variant and that they have been unwitting agents for its rapid dispersal in London and the South East.

Most schools are now in a better position to cope with a third and stricter national lockdown. Remote education is no longer unfamiliar and may even be preferable for a small minority of senior school students. The downside (and it is a substantial one) is that we know that disadvantaged children will continue to lose out either because they lack the technology to participate or because their individual circumstances are less conducive to working away from school.

Concern for the attainment gap is a significant reason why politicians are rightly keen to keep schools open. Indeed, it is reassuring that politicians have noticed the central role excellent schools play in our children’s life chances. But public health will always trump public education in the immediate term and that is why any government will ultimately bow to the pressure to close school premises should the danger to public health become too great.

In Scotland, this decision has already been taken with students not due back in school until 18 January. In England, Ministers are unlikely to take this decision until the last possible moment, possibly even the evening of 3 January, but it may be looking as inevitable as the Prime Minister‘s decision to cancel Christmas or the Secretary of State’s decision on Centre Assessment Grades.

If left to school leaders, our communities would already know the answers. Not all those answers would be the same as different circumstances apply in different parts of the country and in very different school settings, but decisions would have been made.

Written by Dr Simon Hyde, HMC General Secretary