Devolution, Differing Approaches, & the Danger of Returning to School: The Cases of England & Wales
“Stay at home”, has been the resounding governmental message of the past couple of months. The instruction to remain inside and away from others has become the new normal for many of us; yet Boris Johnson, during his address on May 10th, revealed plans to begin the reopening of schools in England from June 1st. Cries of protest were heard from teachers and parents who felt this was a violation of safety. With the “R-number” in England still estimated to be around 0.7, it is undeniable that the risk of contracting the disease remains high. Why then do the government believe it is appropriate to send children and teachers back to school? How can we ensure that schools are safe environments? Predictably, the Government’s gamble to return to the classroom has faced contention and controversy. But not in Wales.
While the Prime Minister’s address on the 10th of May left a vast majority of English citizens staring vacantly with confusion at their television screens, just over the border in Wales, a sigh of collective relief could be heard. The change in regulations did not apply to us. First Minister Mark Drakeford had specified that the “Stay at Home” policy was to continue in Wales for the foreseeable future, with it seeming unlikely that schools will reopen until September. Since 1997 Wales has been a devolved country, and the Government of Wales Act, has, since 2006, provided Wales with legislative control over many different fields, including Education. I am ashamed to admit that I have never thought in-depth about the devolved powers our Senedd (Welsh Parliament) possesses. Until now. Covid-19 has truly highlighted the importance of devolution in Wales; our devolved powers will enable us, for the time being, to keep our students and teachers away from schools, and consequently away from a heightened risk of contracting the virus. Until the “R-number” significantly drops, my belief is that it is problematic and dangerous to hasten back to school.
The question must be posed: will English students returning to school earlier than those in Wales benefit overall? While some believe that prolonging lockdown and deferring the return to school is negatively affecting students’ mental health, educational development, and sense of structure and normality, others believe that the possibility of contracting the virus and bombarding the NHS with cases outweighs all of these factors. As has been correctly proposed by teachers and parents nationwide: how can we ensure that children maintain social distancing measures, particularly around other children? Headlice notoriously spreads like wildfire amongst children, so how can we guarantee that the same does not occur with Covid-19? Here, some have presented that England should follow the Danish model of the transition back into the classroom. In Denmark, the return to school has been considered a success through grouping small numbers of children into “pods” to socially distance together. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the Danish model will be suitable in the UK; this is primarily due to the contraction and death rates in Denmark being substantially lower than in the UK. Additionally, classroom sizes in Denmark are much smaller, with a teacher-pupil ration of 10 to 1.[i]
Furthermore, it is possible that English students returning to school from June 1st may face unnecessary stress and anxiety from being in an environment that cannot be 100% guaranteed as safe (despite what Michael Gove seems to believe). Whereas, in Wales, both students and teachers can continue to socially distance and learn safely from home, using the digital learning resource Hwb. If the possibility to continue to learn electronically and effectively is possible, it seems the correct way forward in regard to student safety (for the time being).
However, while a prominent concern is the overall safety and health of students, it is important to examine what impact remaining at home and therefore away from school for longer will have on the attainment gap. In Wales, recent data collected by Estyn suggests that at GCSE level, 32% fewer pupils who receive free school meals get five good passes, including core subjects such as English, in comparison with other
students.[ii] A significant amount of work has already been lucratively conducted in Wales to narrow the attainment gap and promote social mobility, as is detailed in last year’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results.[iii] While studying and learning at home is certainly the safest method at the moment, it is concerning that this prolonged absence from school will negatively impact the attainment gap in Wales and undermine the progress which has already occurred. After all, can students really learn as effectively and successfully at home as they do in school? This is highly dubious. It seems then that in England, a certain benefit for returning to school will be that the most disadvantaged children will have the ability to return to an educational environment sooner than those in Wales.
On the surface, it may seem as though there are countless benefits to the English method of returning to school sooner rather than later. After all, our living rooms and kitchen tables will not suffice as excellent learning environments forever. I am certain that at the top of every person’s current wish list is for our society to commence normal life once more, with students participating in examinations to develop their education and progress their achievements. But at what cost? Should the health and safety of our students and teachers be compromised? Of course, the return to school and “normality” must commence at some point, however, I believe that for the time being the Welsh system of postponing is the safest method one can adopt in these unprecedented and unpredictable circumstances.
Wales is not alone in taking this stance. Scotland, also a devolved administration, will not be following English regulations, and will not be sending children back to school. The contrasting methods taken by each country of the UK to exit lockdown has made for compelling viewing. This political shift, where England is not considered the blueprint or model in which to follow, is seismic. This week, Mark Drakeford, when questioned on BBC Breakfast as to why Wales is not following England in its easing of lockdown, masterfully quipped: "Well, I could say to you why aren’t England following what’s happening in other parts of the UK? England isn’t a template for the rest of the UK to follow-". [iv] As a Welsh citizen myself, it has been fascinating to observe Wales take full advantage of its autonomy. The differing approaches of returning to education, (and indeed so many other sectors), taken by England, Scotland, and Wales, begs the question: are we still a United Kingdom? It seems to me as though these diverging tactics will have a political impact for some time to come.
Endnotes: [i] National Education Union: https://neu.org.uk/blog/reopening-schools-looking-international-outs-new-zealand-and-denmark
Graduate of King's College London
Incoming Teach First Participant