Keir Starmer just threw young people and families under the bus

Keir Starmer
Steve Topple

Labour leader Keir Starmer has now waded into the debate over the reopening of schools amid the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. But his leadership is posing a triple threat on this occasion: writing in a right-wing tabloid, out Tory-ing the Tories, and missing the bigger problem within the argument altogether.

Starmer in the Mail on Sunday

Starmer has written in the Mail on Sunday. Aside from the obvious problem of him writing in one of the trashiest, most right-wing rags going, what he says is also uncomfortable. The headline screams:

I don’t just want all our children back in school, I expect it. No ifs, no buts

Starmer goes on to say that:

Every day children are missing out on their education is a tragedy. It has a devastating impact on their wellbeing and life chances, as well as putting a huge strain on families who are forced to juggle childcare and work commitments. …

Let me be equally clear: it is the Prime Minister’s responsibility to guarantee children get the education they need and the benefit of being back with their teachers and classmates.

It’s difficult to argue with Starmer over the effect on children and parents of having no schooling. But there’s a major problem with his argument. And it’s the public health risk.

Mass outbreaks

Public Health England defines possible coronavirus outbreaks as two or more laboratory confirmed cases of:

acute respiratory infections [ARIs]… (COVID-19, influenza or other respiratory pathogen) linked to a particular setting

Its data shows that in the week ending 12 July, outbreaks of ARIs were highest in educational settings. This was even above care homes and hospitals. Although in educational settings there were 22 incidents with “at least one linked case that tested positive” for coronavirus – this was lower than care homes (35) but higher than hospitals (12). And this data is not a fluke. Because the pattern was the same the previous week. The week before that, care home incidents were highest, but educational settings were higher than hospitals. The same pattern was witnessed the week before that, too. The most recent data (week ending 9 August) shows care home incidents have risen.

Bear in mind that the incidents in schools are against a backdrop of only four year groups (nursery, reception, and years one and six) returning to primary schools in June, and years 10 and 12 in secondary. And as Schools Week reported, as soon as the latter went back, outbreaks almost doubled.

A public health risk?

A paper in the Lancet has already warned the government that if it wants to prevent a major second wave of coronavirus, then it must do so with:

large-scale, population-wide testing of symptomatic individuals and effective tracing of their contacts, followed by isolation of diagnosed individuals.

But the test and trace system is still in chaos. The app has only started being trialled this week, and the government has cut 6,000 staff from the test and trace system. So, it would hardly seem prudent or sensible that come September, children were sent back to school in huge numbers.

A rock and a hard place

The challenge is that for many parents and guardians, home schooling has been extremely difficult. Speaking from personal experience as someone whose family are on Universal Credit, whose partner is chronically ill and disabled, who works nearly full time while also caring for my partner full time – home schooling our 14-year-old child was the straw that nearly broke the camel’s back. There are probably many carers, parents, and guardians from the poorest backgrounds who have had similar experiences. Meanwhile, for some families higher up the socioeconomic ladder, home schooling was probably less challenging – because with wealth comes time and financial privilege.

So we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: knowing that sending children back to school in huge numbers poses a massive public health risk, juxtaposed with the really difficult prospect of more home schooling. On a personal level, my partner was officially shielded and our son lives with some of the same health conditions – so there’s a major personal health risk with him going back to school, too. Therefore, any calls for schools not to be reopened need to be accompanied by a plan that increases home schooling provision, beyond teachers setting work remotely and the occasional Zoom/Microsoft Teams meeting.

So the option to carry on home-schooling in order to mitigate the public health risk is by no means perfect. But Starmer is wrong to call for a blanket return to school for all pupils, too. Educational professionals, the government, and support services must do more to protect public health, while ensuring that a whole generation of already disadvantaged, poorer children are not left behind.

Featured image via the BBC – YouTube

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