Back to School

23rd August 2020
We have just come through the A level, GCSE AND Btec debacle, with the media and most parents pointing the finger of responsibility firmly at the Secretary of State, whilst in response, government ministers blame officials in Ofqual.
 
Yet there is no rest for the government, for immediately all eyes turn to September, the month the government has decreed pupils must return to school.
 
Notwithstanding Covid 19, this should be reasonably straight forward, after all it has been in other countries and the WHO has consistently for months said there is no record of Covid spikes when schools re-open.
 
However, everyone remembers how the government decreed that schools should have returned a couple of months ago and yet despite all that evidence, the Teachers Unions took the government on, refusing to comply. Sadly, in a foretaste of the exam debacle, the Secretary of State backed down.
 
Now everyone waits to see if September will see a repeat of the climb down - the Unions are licking their lips. All this adds to the sense that the government is drifting, buffeted for months by the pandemic and without a clearly articulated plan.
 
After all, it’s only 9 months since Boris Johnson won a landslide victory, built on optimism.
 
Of course Covid 19 has changed the dynamics of government priorities with the need to respond to an unprecedented global crisis. Yet despite that we still need to encompass it within a strategy that sees the government leading more, rather than reacting.
 
Take the education exam issue. Given the nature of 2020 and the decision not to hold exams, it should have become clear early on that without exams it would be impossible to stick rigidly to a plan to reduce grade inflation. Algorithms don’t solve political problems, politicians do.
 
But the same issue runs through a number of areas. Take quarantining travellers from holiday destinations. I personally think it has become a sledgehammer to crack a small nut and that if we are so concerned about rising infection rates in other countries we could at least have tried to work with our allies and friends to try and devise a more regional policy.
 
However, the real issue for British people has been the last minute nature of it all - 48 hours warning reduced to 24 in the case of France, with people desperately trying to get back, causing chaos and anger. The government's messaging has at times seemed mixed.
 
The lockdown in the UK has been deep and lasted longer than expected and the result has been terrible on the economy. We long ago needed to get the economy moving yet the messaging has sometimes contradicted the plan.
 
Global evidence shows that fewer than 4 per cent of those who have died have died with no known co-morbidities and that the average global age of death is 82. As eminent scientist Professor Gupta now shows the Covid 19 death rate per infected person is well below 1 in 1,000.
 
Given that, the government should be emphasising that it is safe to return to work. However, the message remained so frightening for so long that a recent poll showed only 17 per cent now think it is safe to leave their home and go to the office. I worry that as a result, the UK has lost ability to balance risk.
 
This is where the government needs to show it governs with a steady hand, based on a clear strategy and message. They must avoid being haunted by Churchill’s critique of Stanley Baldwins government, “…decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift….”
 
To do this we need a clear strategy. First we have to make it clear to the Unions and others that there are no if’s or buts, schools must re-open and children must go back in September. Ministers even now should be explaining, forcefully, to parents that their children’s future will be blighted if this does not happen. They also need to explain again and again to parents that there is no risk. Also if children don’t go back to school, large swathes of the economy will lose the input of parents and be further damaged.
 
This battle over schools returning must see the Prime Minister in the lead, galvanising his inner Churchill for this issue has the capacity either to scar the government or alternatively to re-invigorate the government.
 
It is a fight that, if the government wins, will see the start of an uplift in its fortunes and win it must.
 
First published in the Telegraph

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