How PM handles reopening of schools is a test he can’t afford to flunk


Boris Johnson knows that reopening England’s schools is a tricky political test he can’t afford to flunk.

After June’s false start, the prime minister has now made it clear he will do everything he can to get children learning again and keep them learning.

But that could involve trade-offs as other sectors are forced to shut up shop to keep classrooms open.

A bespoke approach to local coronavirus lockdowns will see schools essentially ring-fenced with “unprecedented steps” taken to allow them to carry on.

This sounds sneakily similar to suggestions from scientists that pubs and restaurants would need to close to stop COVID-19 infections rising when pupils return.

Evidence from the government’s advisory group SAGE also shows that the impact of schools on the viral spread depends more on how well the rest of society keeps to social distancing, rather than what necessarily goes on in the classroom.

Officials insist such national action is not on the table and this is about the prime minister’s priorities when it comes to bringing in more severe restrictions locally in towns and cities.

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Industry may still be rattled though, with business groups calling for tailored financial support for firms impacted by local lockdowns and a more organised approach to disseminating information.

Boris Johnson
The PM has to convince teachers and unions it is safe for pupils to return in September

This latest rallying cry from Number 10 may also not allay fears in some education unions about the safety of teachers and pupils.

Guidance on the National Education Union’s website simply states that it “wants schools to open in September if it is safe to do so”.

Hardly the confidence some in Westminster want to see.

But behind the emotive language from Boris Johnson lies deep concern about the broader impact of schools staying shut.

Even a few months out the classroom leaves lasting damage.

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This is thought to be felt most acutely by younger pupils and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For a prime minister who promises to “level up”, a yawning education gap is not a great start.

But schools also act as a linchpin to the rest of the economy.

If parents can’t get their children back to the classroom, they will struggle to go back to work.

It all adds up to another big challenge for Mr Johnson as he tries to win the trust of teachers and parents.

He’ll need more than just emotive language to succeed.

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