Throughout the summer months, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has pushed for a full-time return for all pupils at the start of the academic year. Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave full support to the plan, claiming reopening schools was a moral duty to the young people of the nation.
Despite the continued prevalence of coronavirus in Britain, schools across the country are preparing to reopen their doors to pupils this week, with coronavirus safety measures in place. In Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest GB polling, 89% of respondents with school-aged children reported that their child’s school was reopening this week, compared to 11% whose school was not reopening.
Among respondents whose child’s school is reopening, 93% of them said they are sending their children back to school. Only 7% were not.
Respondents’ resistance to sending their children back to school has decreased in recent weeks. In our polling conducted on the 24th of August, 78% of respondents with school-aged children said they intended to send their children back to school, while on the 19th of August, only 69% of this subgroup of respondents intended to send their children back to school in September.
High return rates may be due to the Government’s decision to mandate school attendance, threatening to levy truancy fines on parents as a last resort if they refuse to send their children to school. A majority of the public (51- 56%) agreed with the Government’s decision to make school attendance mandatory when schools return in September. The public’s support may highlight their concern for children’s mental and physical health if they do not return to school, as well as a recognition that some parents need to return to workplaces and pass on daytime care of their children to schools.
Throughout our polling in August, a clear majority (57-59%) of respondents with school-aged children agreed with the decision to make school mandatory throughout the month of August, a slightly higher level than the rest of the population.
Nevertheless, many parents said they would be concerned about their child’s personal health if they were to contract coronavirus. Indeed, 30% of parents would be somewhat worried and think coronavirus would likely be very unpleasant. A further 19% would be very worried and think it could have a severe effect on their child’s health and 15% would be extremely worried and fear that their child could lose their life
By contrast, 14% said they would not be worried at all and doubt they would even notice if their child tested positive and 22% would mostly not be worried and think they would likely experience some mild discomfort,
Overall, the percentage of parents who are not sending their children to school this week (7%) is lower than the percentage of parents who express concern about their child contracting coronavirus. In addition to the deterrent of a fine, parents may feel relatively comfortable about sending to their children to school, and believe that they are unlikely to contract coronavirus there. Indeed, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Harries’ has stated that children had a ‘higher risk’ of catching seasonal flu or being involved in a road accident than contracting coronavirus.
The British public have consistently displayed high levels of trust in the Government’s scientific advisors. In our previous research, 58% of the public agreed with a statement made by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, that children were more likely to be harmed by not returning to school than if they caught the coronavirus.
The Government was criticised in August in response to their handling of the GCSE and A Level results, which were awarded without examinations due to the pandemic. Criticism from the Labour Party was particularly strong with leader Keir Starmer condemning the process as ‘deeply flawed’. Fearing further disruption, 62% of the public would approve of moving 2021 GCSE and A-level exams to mid-summer rather than the traditional period in May and June. Only 12% would disapprove.
A clear majority of 2019 Labour supporters (68%) and 2019 Conservative voters (60%) support mid-summer exams next year.
Beyond the risk to children within their classroom communities, some people are worried about the reopening of schools causing a nationwide spike in coronavirus cases. At this stage 69% of the public would support a mandatory face mask rule in communal areas of all secondary schools, which would mirror legislation enforcing face masks in enclosed public areas. Just 10% of respondents would disapprove of this policy being introduced. Support was bi-partisan with 71% of 2019 Labour voters and 72% of 2019 Conservative voters supporting the move.
As students return to the classroom, working parents will be better able to return in-person to their usual places of work. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the Government’s push to reopen will result in a rapid rise in cases, as was the case in Israel and the US, where some schools reopened only to shut back down days later. Redfield & Wilton Strategies will continue to monitor the situation in the coming weeks.