Absolutism on any future school closures seems unwise

Warwick Mansell · 5 May 2022

Rather than firmly ruling out closing schools in the event of another virulent strain of Covid-19, or a different pandemic in the future, the education secretary should adopt a more nuanced approach, argues education journalist Warwick Mansell.

Should schools never have closed to most pupils because of Covid-19? Should they never do so in the future if, and when, the pandemic evolves?

The answer to both questions above is an almost unequivocal “yes, never”.

Or that, at least, is the view the public might reach were they to have listened to a recent session of the cross-party House of Commons Education Select Committee.

But are matters, on this hugely important issue, so straightforward?

I found myself asking this question having watched exchanges between Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP who chairs the committee, and Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, who was being grilled by Halfon and his colleagues as part of accountability hearings.

Halfon, who opposes Covid-19 school closures, had asked Zahawi whether the latter would support his Private Members’ Bill on the subject. This would have forced the government to seek advice in advance from the Children’s Commissioner if it proposed to close schools, with it also having to be approved by MPs.

Zahawi did not back Halfon’s move, but re-iterated comments he made in March that closing schools at all after the spread of Covid-19 to the UK in early 2020 had been wrong. “In principle, I think it was a mistake, and I will do everything in my power to never again be in a position to close schools,” Zahawi told Halfon.

But it seemed surprising to hear this stated without nuance, given that many countries around the world closed schools, that none would have done so lightly and also given that, clearly, there is uncertainty around the potential characteristics of any future Covid variant.

The effect on pupils of being out of school has been what has driven that stance. Speaking on Sky News in March, Zahawi said: “I will do everything in my power never again to close schools and the Prime Minister absolutely agrees with me because [of] not just the learning loss, but the mental strain, the anxiety.”

Cost of lockdown

The evidence that closures impacted negatively on many pupils is strong. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation states that a “consistent pattern” has been shown across research studies, of pupils making less academic progress during lockdowns than that of previous year groups, and that disadvantaged pupils had slipped further behind their peers as a result.

A systematic review of studies from 11 countries, published in January, had found negative effects overall on children’s mental health, while in March a letter to the Times signed by 50 doctors and scientists reported that mental health problems went from being experienced in one in nine children and young people before the pandemic to one in six in 2020 and 2021, while childhood obesity rates last year had also increased significantly.

It is also the case that, mercifully, the number of children becoming seriously ill with Covid has been very small as a proportion of the population.

But school closures, of course, had gone ahead with many governments around the world concerned to limit transmission, not just among pupils and teachers, but in the wider community. Lockdowns as a whole did bring down that transmission in 2020 and 2021, with school closures clearly a key element of that.

To put that another way, if children and adults had continued to interact in classrooms, infection rates in the population as a whole would surely have been higher, hospitalisations would have been higher and deaths as a result would have been higher.

So policymakers would appear to have faced a grim trade-off, their decision-making weighing the negative educational and other welfare impacts on children of closing schools versus increased illness and death, mainly in adults, of not having done so.

I say this as a non-specialist, based on having read about Covid decision-making throughout the pandemic. As a journalist, had I been interviewing Zahawi, or Halfon, I would have wanted to have put that trade-off to them: if you wouldn’t have closed schools, do you accept that there would have been extra deaths as a result?

But there was none of that context in this discussion, with any negative impacts of not closing schools not weighed against those associated with closing them.

Critics of school closures will argue that we are now in a much better position than at the start of the pandemic, as vaccines have ensured much less of a link between transmission and hospitalisations. So perhaps Zahawi and Halfon are right in stating that we should all we can to avoid closures in future.

Future variants?

Yet the unknown element is what a future variant of Covid might look like. It might be more virulent; it might evade current vaccines; it might even have more serious effects on children.

Unfortunately, it would seem most prudent not to rule out options in future, with perhaps a more nuanced approach – that “schools should still be the last to close and first to open in any future lockdown” – the best, given what we currently know.

Finally, with Zahawi signposting his view that past school closures had been a “mistake,” it seemed remarkable that he did not confess on this occasion to any other errors in the government’s handling of Covid in schools.

Yet there was a catalogue of them, as anyone reading last summer’s damning Institute for Government report on “schools and coronavirus” could attest.

Overall, context is desperately needed, with the pandemic often implied to be over but with no telling if and when another serious variant might emerge.

We surely need to learn from the past, and also to be aware that varying options for the future might all come with downsides.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist, who founded and writes for the investigative website Education Uncovered.

The views expressed in this article belong solely to the author as an independent contributor. They are not endorsed or necessarily shared by Prospect.

Education and children's services

Prospect represents nearly 3,000 professionals in education, children's services, early years, commissioning and children's social care.