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Will a lack of trust undermine school reopening?

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  • Education
  • Schools

Nearly half of survey respondents say they do not trust the Government to have the best interests of children at heart on the issue of re-opening schools.

On Monday schools will reopen for pupils in the first and final years of primary school in England.

The Government says it wants to get all children back into education as soon as the scientific advice allows, because it is the best place for them to learn, and it is good for children’s mental wellbeing. Monday will be the first step towards that.

However, a poll carried out by Populus on behalf of the RSA this week shows that only 30% of those surveyed agree with this approach. Indeed, over a third of respondents believe that schools should not be open in June at all, with that rising to over 40% for parents of children aged 18 and under.

Why is support so low among the public for the current policy for school re-opening, and what are the implications for how we can support our children’s learning in the coming months?

The question of how and when to reopen schools is complex

The question of when and how schools should reopen is complex. The health risk to pupils and staff – and the risk of increased infection across the whole population – must be balanced against the risks of keeping pupils at home.

This is not a simple ‘health versus economy’ situation, with the risk of infection being pitted against the desire to make money by getting parents back to work. On the contrary. Schools being closed increases safeguarding risks for vulnerable children.

Pupils (particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds) will fall behind in their learning, with expected impacts on earnings and employment well into adulthood. And it is the poorest in society who will likely suffer most in the long run from the negative impact on the economy of hundreds of thousands of parents not being able to work.

The public have a ‘safety first’ attitude to reopening schools

However, today’s findings suggest that safety from the risk of Covid is the overwhelming concern amongst the public.

A massive 78% of people surveyed feel that ensuring the risk of infection for pupils and staff is ‘negligible’ should be the top priority when deciding when schools should reopen, as opposed to helping parents return to work or reducing disruption to education. And almost a quarter think schools should not open at all until a vaccine can be found, which has been widely reported as still being 12-18 months away.

And yet the evidence suggests that in opening schools, the risk to children from COVID is very low, and that by gradually increasing the numbers who return to school, rather than bringing all pupils back at once, the risk of increasing the rate of transmission overall is reduced. So why do people appear to feel so strongly that it is not safe to return?

Trust in Government

In part, the survey suggests that it is because people want the risk to ‘negligible’: a ‘reduced’ risk isn’t good enough.

But trust in the Government also appears to be a significant issue. Very nearly half of those surveyed (49%) say they do not trust the Government to have the best interests of children at heart on this issue.

It is perhaps unsurprising that levels of trust in the Government are lower than levels for teachers and heads, but our poll showed that teaching unions and local authorities/councils were also significantly more likely to be trusted on children’s interests.

There are many factors that influence the public’s trust on complex issues such as this, but it is interesting that levels of trust were low across all groups where there were enough respondents to judge. Our poll did reveal that 49% of respondents feel that the Government is ‘too distracted by the Dominic Cummings affair’ to be making the right decisions about opening up schools.

Gaining the trust of teachers and finding non-classroom solutions

So where do we go from here? The negative impacts of school closures which have been widely cited in recent months will not go away.

The effect on educational inequality is particularly pressing, with the Education Endowment Foundation estimating that prolonged closure could wipe out 10 years of progress on narrowing the gap between the most disadvantaged children and their peers. This is not just about exams and qualifications: it has an impact on the long-term future of these young people.

Based on today’s results, we believe that the challenge is to find a way to restart education which is safe, and which is seen to be safe. Unquestionably, we need to follow the best available evidence in assessing the health risk of different options. But we also need to consider the issue of public trust, because public compliance is essential.

Our findings show very high levels of trust in teachers and heads to have children’s interests at heart (over 80% in both cases) and 73% of respondents agree that the final decision to reopen schools should be taken by headteachers in consultation with local authorities, following risk assessments. While there are some risks involved in delegating these decisions completely (most notably that families in different places will be receiving different offers of education), it appears that securing the support of teachers and local leaders could be an effective way for the Government to bring the public along with their approach.

And effective educational solutions which do not require pupils to be back in the classroom will continue to be necessary. Susannah Hardyman’s recent guest blog discusses the potential for tutoring to support catch-up for disadvantaged pupils; remote tutoring is an approach recommended by the RSA in its call last week for a ‘year of stabilisation’.

Of course, online learning can only be effective if all pupils have access to the necessary technology. Yet in a recent survey of more than 150 RSA fellows teaching or working in schools - in a wide range of different areas – more than half of all respondents identified lack of access to laptops/tablets and lack of broadband as barriers to home learning for their pupils.

We may need creative yet safeguarded ways to allow access to non-school settings – libraries, community centres or even under-used office space - for those who don’t have the space, support or technology to learn effectively from home. 

Ultimately, the challenge is not only to respond to Covid now, but to deliver a better and fairer education system in its wake. We need to build bridges to the future. To achieve this, the Government, teachers, unions, local authorities and parents need to be pulling in the same direction. Our survey suggest that the public do not yet believe that is happening.


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  •  Has the perceived negative reporting by mainstream media propagated the lack of trust in the government? As part of your research should you look into what effect the unions anti-government rhetoric had on parent's decision making and the potential long-term impact this has had on the disadvantaged in society?

  • Thanks for this thoughtful, balanced post. Can you share more details of the opinion poll or give a link?

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