There has been significant controversy in the UK over the Government’s plans to partially reopen schools to pupils from the 1st of June onwards. Despite significant opposition to these plans from some teachers’ unions, public support for this partial reopening has grown over the past two weeks. Polls conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies on the 15th and 27th of May show the change in how respondents perceive the risk level of reopening schools: whereas on the 15th of May only 21% of respondents considered it safe to partially reopen schools on the 1st of June, this figure grew to 30% by the 27th of May. Although the trend indicates more confidence in the Government’s claim that it is safe for schools to reopen, the majority of respondents (53%) still consider even a partial reopening to be unsafe.
Most of the change appears to have taken place among male respondents and among those who voted Conservative in the 2019 General Election. For male respondents, the proportion who considers it safe to partially reopen schools around the 1st of June increased from 24% to 38% in the span of past two weeks, whereas the increase among female respondents was far more modest (18% to 22%). In terms of party lines, support for reopening schools among 2019 Conservative voters went up from 26% to 43%, whereas Labour voters show an increase from 15% to 21%. Thus, although opinion in changing more rapidly among male and Conservative-voting respondents, the trend among female and Labour-voting respondents is also towards viewing the partial reopening of schools on June 1st as safe, even though the great majority of them remain opposed. As children start returning to schools, and provided that there is no corresponding uptick in cases, this trend is likely to continue.
Interestingly, our polls also found that the proportion of respondents with school-age children who would send them to school in June or July is much higher than the proportion of the general public who consider it safe to do so. As shown below, more than half of respondents with school-age children would send them to school in June and July (provided the school takes additional safety measures), and this proportion has remained virtually unchanged from our previous poll.
In that previous poll, we also asked those without school-age children whether they would hypothetically send their child to school if they had one. The results were surprising: a higher proportion of respondents without school-age children (66%) would not send them to school in June and July, as compared to those with school-age children (44%). This difference between parents and non-parents suggests that while the policy may not be fully supported by the overall public, it will likely be supported by many of those affected by it.
Whereas the Government’s aim is for all pupils to have at least one month of in-person school in June and/or July before the summer vacation, there are some who argue that schools should remain fully closed until September even if this significantly disadvantages some children. However, the proportion of respondents who agree with this view has fallen slightly from 64% to 61% between the 15th and 27th on May, even though it still remains the view of the majority of respondents. On the other hand, the share of respondents who disagree with keeping schools closed until September has increased from 14% to 21%, which reflects both increased optimism about the coronavirus situation in the UK as well as urgency to ensure children do not lose more crucial time in school.
One key problem of not reopening schools sooner rather than later, which some in education have identified, is that it may disadvantage some pupils more than others. Research appears to indicate a gap between wealthier pupils and those at independent schools able to arrange for high-quality remote tuition and tutoring, as compared to students from lower income backgrounds or less well-funded state schools who are not able to provide an education that approximates that which they offer in-person. The longer schools remain closed, the more this gap will widen, and the likelier the effects of the lockdown will be far-reaching into pupils’ lives.
When asked whether the Government should find ways to allow these pupils to return to school this summer, 39% of respondents indicated support on the 27th May—a slight increase from the 15th May, when 34% of respondents supported this. Once again, it was respondents who voted Conservative in 2019 whom by a large margin supported reopening schools for the most disadvantaged pupils: 49% of them expressed support last week, compared to 32% of 2019 Labour voters. In both cases, it represented an increase from the level of support shown two weeks prior.
Regardless of whether respondents feel it is safe or unsafe to reopen schools from the 1st of June onwards, there is broad agreement that the UK Government should make publicly available the scientific advice that SAGE provided regarding the potential reopening of schools, with 78% of respondents indicating they think this information should be publicly available, including 76% of respondents who voted Conservative in 2019.
Although confidence in the Government’s position that it is safe to reopen schools on the 1st of June has increased over the past two weeks, it will likely take some more time to persuade the broader public and, more importantly, the 29% of respondents with school-age children who remain wary.
Furthermore, the Government must also be prepared to be wrong. It has been reported in France and in Israel, that re-openings of schools may be tied to an increase in cases. Of course, such claims have not been fully investigated, and the picture so far across Europe indicates that is safe for schools to re-open. Nevertheless, to further facilitate this gradual increase in feelings of safety, being as transparent as possible will be the best strategy for the Government moving forward.