NEU has described the UK Government’s decision to reopen primary schools in England as reckless and premature. NEU’s five safety tests have received widespread backing from civil society from the British Medical Association and Parentkind, but have met with opprobrium from the political right and elements of the British press. The centralist approach from Whitehall is very different to that of the devolved regions, but the death ‘count’ in the UK has reached the highest in Europe and amongst the worst in the developed world.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have taken a different tack. The Department of Education in Northern Ireland has taken a collaborate and collegiate approach to the Covid-19 threat and consulted closely with unions and educational stakeholders throughout.
There are valid and strong arguments for looking closely at reopening schools. The poorest pupils suffer most under lock-down. The evidence is mixed in relation to the degree to which children are effective carriers of the virus. Schools can be more effective spaces than home in some safeguarding cases. The same goes for the management of mental health problems amongst pupils. The economy needs to open at some stage and management of risk will be an ongoing challenge until a vaccine is found. Risk needs to be mitigated, so why not start in schools?
It is also fair to say that the active state intervention and supports required to tackle Covid-19 – such as the furlough scheme - remain anathema to the libertarian right.
The Pacific rim
The UK Government, in seeking to drive a return to school by 1 June, is desperate for a "democratic" example of a country that has effectively quashed the virus and exited from ‘lock-down’. So, Taiwan and Singapore are cited and less convincingly, South Korea. But these don’t entirely fit the bill. These southeast Asian countries are democratic only in a very formal sense, having mimic-style "liberal-democratic discourses" of a Potemkin-village type also regularly top the OECD educational performance tables.
In reality, these are ‘authoritarian democracies’. The tracking apps they use identify everybody personally - where they've been and who they've been with. And results are published, ‘name and shame’ fashion. There has been a surge of divorces in these countries because of revelations this has led to, and reports of gay people going underground after being identified.
Tracking is compulsory (as in China) and evasion carries stiff penalties. Such tracking is, so far, inconceivable across most of the West, so superficially touting these "democratic" states as shining examples to emulate is problematic.
So where else to look for leverage to facilitate an early reopening of schools and the economy? Germany, a federal country with a higher population than the UK doesn’t fit the bill. The localisation of the German response with strong federal influence isn’t applicable in England where local government funding has dropped 40% over the past decade and where councils are seen as potential alternative sources of power and dissent from London. In any event, death-rate and infection statistical comparisons with Germany would be too damning.
So, where else? Iceland? Too small. Faroe Islands? Smaller still. New Zealand? A bit remote, population the size of Scotland, but a solid Commonwealth country – people like us - maybe?
The good example of New Zealand’s Covid-19 response also proved problematic for the UK government. Even with New Zealand’s limited connectivity with the world, the virus did make its way in, through international flights and air travel. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern acted quickly and decisively.
For Ardern, in an election year, what Imperial College showed was a possibility of a country - by polling day - decimated by a disease that was already present. What Ardern saw as a prospect, and was being advised as such, was a death toll in New Zealand in excess of the scale of WWI casualties. Her reaction was 'not on my watch', not with an election at the end of winter and what the model suggested was in prospect.
Lockdown was rapid and draconian, but effected largely through persuasion. The New Zealand police may lack the powers to crackdown like China, but they don’t need to. Aotearoa’s way of life is far from the hyper-economies and societies of western Europe. Prudence was evicted from the Treasury as the economy closed down. Visitors were discouraged and arrivals of all sorts face a 14 day quarantine. Schools that chose to remain open are unrecognisable.
Irish political writer and New Zealand resident Feargus O’Raghhallaigh wrote: “Trish and I went to a local supermarket yesterday - and were confronted by a polite woman, who indicated that only one of us could enter. The other day I went for a coffee at a local little pie shop and coffee shop, I had to stand outside as there was one customer on premises and on entry, I had to sign-in by name, email, and phone number - and then spray my hands.”
O’Raghhallaigh pertinently notes that Ardern, from Morrisville in the North Island’s Waikato region, is regularly portrayed as the ‘provincial’ or ‘small-town’ girl, but she “has not a speck of ideology of the left/ right variety about her, unusual for a Labour party leader. She is cautious and frustrates the more radically inclined (notwithstanding her support for capital gains taxation) but what Ardern does have and communicates, is not red-socialism, rather a sincere belief in common humanity and the essential goodness of people… the Covid-19 crisis has allowed her to bring these beliefs to the fore, guide her decisions and silence the opposition.”
New Zealand adopted the message, “more hard and early” and it seems to have worked. Yes, it has the advantages of remoteness, and well dispersed population centres. There is some scepticism about under-counting and the figures for community transmission. The new term of ‘silent transmission’ is creeping in –– but Ardern’s surefootedness (on the same evidence base as the UK) ensures that she enjoys unrivalled trust and authority. Relatively, the UK appears as a basket case country, with the US seen as a lost cause.
Shorn of suitable alternatives, the “go-to” exemplar the Johnson Government finally utilised was Denmark. Here, schools are reopening, initially at primary level. The Danish model could only fly’ as a precedent if accompanied by a brazen push that covered the cracks. This is proving a difficult, but necessary task. It is clear that critical elements present in the Danish model are absent in England.
- In Denmark, the death-rate and infection ‘stats’ are significantly ‘south’ of those in the UK;
- In Denmark, educational unions have been closely and routinely consulted throughout;
- In Denmark, transparency reigns, with the SSI’s scientific evidence openly published, whereas the UK’s advice has been shielded, forcing the NEU and other unions to write several times to the Prime-Minister for better disclosure;
- In Denmark’s schools, risk has been mitigated with lower class sizes than the UK, a teacher-pupil ration of 10 to 1, with learning ‘pods’ or groups of 4 pupils recommended. More teachers have been employed to facilitate this. There is strong and rigid social distancing practice, and handwash in every classroom. The UK’s rushed proposals for a schools’ return are far from the clarity of Denmark;
- In Denmark, the Mette Frederiksen led Social Democratic Government, and its scientific evidence base, enjoy high levels of public trust that Boris Johnson’s ‘chaos theory’ driven Government could only dream of.
By all means follow the Danish model but follow it wholly and honestly. Schools can and should be re-opened but only when it is safe to do so.