Reopening Schools In September – A Risk We Have To Take?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 5 August 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Coronavirus; DELVE; Education

The Royal Society has convened a high-level expert, multi-disciplinary group called the Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE) to try and learn from the different approaches in other countries in managing the pandemic. They feed in data-based views to the government’s SAGE advisory group. They have just published an extensive report - Balancing the Risks of Pupils Returning to Schools - which strongly argues for a quick return to classrooms.

The report is set in the current context of a media feeding frenzy which continuously debates decisions to keep schools open or shut. The report recognizes that there are risks from having schools open, but even greater risks from keeping them shut.

“In open schools, the risks to pupils themselves from COVID-19 are very low, though there are risks to school staff, parents/carers and the wider community....

“keeping schools closed in September however will cause further loss of learning, deterioration in children’s mental and physical health and permanent damage to future earning potential and life chances.”

In a previous article I flagged up widespread concern about increasing inequalities in both children’s education achievement and their long-term prospects. The DELVE report recommends that the government’s goal should be to keep schools open and prioritize “levelling up” to tackle this potential underachievement. Keeping schools open is also the key to unlocking the rest of the economy by allowing parents to return to work.  The evidence on the infection risk from school opening is limited, though to date it suggests that the risk compared to restarting many other activities, is not as high and the experience of most other countries which have already taken this step supports this.   The report highlights in contrast, that the evidence on the negative impact of closing schools is “considerable and robust”.

The international evidence in the report suggests that there will be a major impact on pupil achievement levels through learning loss. While some of this may be offset by learning at home and the provision of remote schooling, recent experience has shown that this will only be partially effective for many families. In recent articles in this column I have repeatedly reported that during the lockdown there has been wide variation in the quantity and quality of remote schooling and home learning support between pupils and schools. Even the most dedicated parents are struggling to balance work demands and effectively support their children’s home learning. This reality underlies much of the learning loss over this period.

The DELVE report makes clear that work in school raises skills in a way that home learning never will, and so missed school will mean lower skills which will have real implications for pupil’s careers and for the economy as a whole. They quote a body of evidence showing that earnings depend on skills and lower skills mean lower future earnings especially for young people at the lower end of the ability spectrum. They are the group most likely to lose heavily from school closure and are facing a significantly higher risk of poverty in later life.

DELVE recommend therefore that keeping schools open should be the default Government policy and that everything feasible should be done in order to not close schools. This will mean:

  • Minimising future disruptions to learning by closing other facilities where the risk of transmission is high (such as pubs or gyms) and non-essential shops before considering school closures in the event of local outbreaks.
  • Providing realistic guidance and substantial extra resources to ensure schools can minimise chains of transmission. Clear parental guidance translated into multiple languages, on when to keep their child at home.
  • Ensuring rigorous hygiene rules; distancing and reduced mixing.
  • Employing extra teachers (to provide remedial support for those who have fallen behind).
  • Providing PPE (one or two full PPE sets and provision of cloth face coverings for teachers, older children and those with underlying heath issues).
  • Careful management of staff rooms, regular testing and prioritisation for vaccines for teachers.

In addition to all of this, implementing an effective monitoring regime that can cope with the likely case load in winter, including, as reported in the daily media, an effective test-trace-isolate system, as well as systematic outbreak investigation will all essential be to ensure that schools can be re-opened in September.

Here in Northern Ireland on July 28th Education Minister Peter Weir announced a new focus on tackling wider underperformance issues stating that... “underachievement in education has remained entrenched" in Northern Ireland, despite significant funding and policies to tackle it,” and that In accordance with the requirement in the 'New Decade, New Approach' agreement  he announced an expert panel chaired by Dr Noel Purdy from the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) at Stranmillis University College, to come up with recommendations to tackle educational underachievement by May 2021.

The link between disadvantage and underachievement here has long been one of our most intractable educational issues, compounded by lack of agreement around transfer. This of course has now all been amplified by the effect of the school closures in recent months making it a new top priority. We have some idea of the direction of travel of the review from a recent report from CREU which highlighted a "significant relationship between underachievement and social disadvantage and the fact that that academic selection had ‘significant social, educational and economic consequences for pupils.” It also pointed to a number of other factors leading to young people not fulfilling their potential at school, including inadequate support from parents, low expectations from some teachers and schools and insufficient support for students with special educational needs (SEN).

Our local initiative to tackle underachievement must therefore begin now and not wait for a report in May 2021, however useful that may be in the longer term. The reality is that the current crisis is going to produce a much larger underachievement problem than Northern Ireland’s existing social disadvantage-related underperformance. Plugging the gaps in pupil’s core literacy and numeracy skills must begin immediately if we are to minimise the damage. DELVE’s recommendations on this are clear. Employ more teachers and deliver more resources to schools to keep them open so they can rebuild the damage to children’s future prospects.


This article is correct at 05/08/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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