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Editorial: Twisted capitalist logic is blocking a sane policy on schools

DEATHS from coronavirus are approaching 1,000 a day, with 2020’s total already more than 70,000 across Britain.

The crisis is comparable to the height of the first wave in April. This is a national emergency — yet the government continues to respond with half-measures that are bound to be ineffective.

Even when grudgingly giving way to needed delays in reopening schools, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson hedges.

Secondary schools will bring pupils back a fortnight late — except in exam years, when they will bring pupils back a week late. Primary schools will reopen as planned, except where they won’t.

This is clearly an inadequate response to a rapidly worsening situation. Covid-19 infections rose 50-fold among secondary school pupils between September and November, a direct result of elevating a “back to school” mantra above a realistic assessment of the risks.

The role schools have played in precipitating the second wave of Covid-19 infections is rarely acknowledged. But it stands to reason; as Independent Sage noted in November, children “tend to have a wide transmission circle which can endanger parents and grandparents.” 

This applies to both primary and secondary schoolchildren. And not even Williamson can claim that children in exam years are less likely to transmit the virus than those who are not.

The response will be that ministers are striking a difficult balance between safeguarding children’s health and their education. This fallacy deserves robust repudiation.

In the midst of a health crisis that is killing thousands of people, arguing that it is worth the risk of increasing infections in order to ensure pupils can sit their GCSE and A-levels is unjustifiable, especially when the alternative of teacher assessment is available.

If ministers were so concerned about children’s education, they should have acted on the many practical recommendations made by education unions earlier in the year to allow a safe return to school, most importantly the requisitioning of additional space and the recruitment of additional teachers to allow for smaller class sizes and socially distanced learning.

Even now, they could deliver on providing all school-age children with the equipment to allow remote learning.

Nobody is claiming that remote learning is an equivalent substitute for schooling in the classroom, but this is a health emergency, and the long-term disruption to education will be far less if effective measures are taken to suppress the virus.

The reason ministers will not act has nothing to do with public health and nothing to do with education either.

They do not want children being schooled at home because they do not want parents unavailable for work.

This is why Williamson is more willing to make concessions for older pupils, who may not require adult supervision.

As with the refusal to requisition public spaces or reduce class sizes, the government is not prepared to undertake action that undermines the status quo.

Schools must remain open, though more people will die, because they wish to minimise economic disruption. 

Ironically, by failing to contain the virus they do greater damage to the economy, but have at least avoided measures which strike against the prevailing logic of capitalism. 

Labour does no better with its long-winded attacks on Williamson, which boil down to so much hot air since it does not propose an alternative.

His shadow Kate Green focuses her attacks not on the threat to public health but on the disruption to education caused by his mixed messages. Labour too is fixated on maintaining the status quo at whatever cost.

The education fiasco showcases the way the twisted logic of capitalism stands in the way of policies to protect us from this virus.

A mass campaign to force the government to give way on schools is a matter of life and death.

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