My latest column - 20th August 2020

In a matter of days something should be happening that has occurred at around this time of every year of my life, and probably every year of most readers’ lifetimes – schools throwing open their doors again after the summer break. Whatever mix of emotions parents, teachers and pupils may usually feel about September’s return to the classroom, on this occasion the critical issue is fairly fundamental. Quite simply, the very act of getting all our children back into school is a national necessity of the greatest import. 

The Prime Minister was right to say earlier this month that we have a ‘moral duty’ to get our children back to school. Families work hard to pay taxes that fund public services, of which education is in my view the most important public good, in terms of its unique ability to give its beneficiaries the tools to better themselves and progress in life.

The economic case is profound, in part in terms of parents being able to return to work with their children back in school during the day; but also in terms of maintaining the recruitment lifecycle for our young people, that should start with conventionally acquired qualifications leading to next steps in further or higher education, or the workplace. The situation is hard enough with an inevitable recession following the Covid-19 closure of our economy.

Above all, there is the social argument, for it is well documented that children in the most vulnerable households are most exposed to the fallout of not resuming their schooling. South Suffolk may contain many fine houses and appear prosperous on the surface for the most part, but I know from my pre-Coronavirus surgeries and visits around the patch that there are pockets of deprivation and families for whom life is a struggle. In those households, I do worry profoundly about what will have happened during lockdown without the ability for children to receive schooling, to mix with friends and thus ease some of the pressure on those looking after them.

I know that some will be nervous about the public health implications of fully reopening schools. In the media we have seen a conflicting range of reports about the health risk, or otherwise, of children returning (especially in every year group). To such concerns I would make two particular points. First, there will be a price to pay if children don’t return to school. We may not know the precise Covid-19 risk for children, or their exact propensity to transmit, but we believe it to be low; we may not be able to quantify the exact cost of suspending full school reopening – but the cost, in my view, will be very high for wider society.

Secondly, we have real experience to draw on. Back in May I was urging the Secretary of State to do everything possible to reopen schools in June; in the end we restricted this to a few key year groups, but many siren voices said even that would be very risky. Had we listened to those voices, no significant reopening would have happened in June and I very much doubt we would be looking at the full hog in September. In fact, Suffolk County Council have confirmed to me that since 1st June there have been no incidences of Coronavirus spreading in school/nursery settings.

I was fortunate that 3 of my 4 children were in year groups that returned to school in June, and I saw the incredibly positive impact it had on them and their fellow pupils. It’s time for all our school-age children to share that experience again.

Published by the Suffolk Free Press.