Schools in the UK closed to the majority of students on March 20, cutting short in-person teaching by four months this academic year. Citing concerns for the educational prospects and mental health of students, as well as the significant economic impact of school closures, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has argued that there is a moral duty to get all children back to school in September. But while pubs, shops and places of worship reopened early July, there are still concerns that not all schools will be prepared to welcome students in time for the new academic year.
In such an event, a poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies last week found that the public would be forgiving, with a plurality (43%) saying that a delay in the reopening of schools would be acceptable and only more than a third (35%) saying it would be unacceptable. While these figures are close, there has been somewhat of a change in public perception since mid-June, when the proportions who said it would be acceptable or unacceptable were identical (41%).
Interestingly, the majority (52%) of respondents with school-aged children think a delay would be acceptable. Despite concerns that a failure to reopen schools would burden families with childcare difficulties, parents are clearly sympathetic to challenges involved in returning students to school.
If the reopening is delayed, a plurality (34%) think nobody would to blame since this delay is a consequence of the pandemic and beyond anyone’s control. Nevertheless, more than a quarter (28%) think the Government will be most to blame, and a further fifth (19%) think the teachers’ unions will be most to blame.
There is significant division along political party lines; 44% of 2019 Labour voters think the Government would be the most to blame while almost a third (31%) of 2019 Conservative voters think the teacher unions would be the most to blame. The Government has been criticised for failing to meet their initial target of getting children back to school before the summer holidays, and the Labour Party’s stance on the matter has been perceived as unclear as the party supported the teaching unions while simultaneously criticising the Government for not reopening schools.
As reopening schools becomes a priority, there has been a suggestion that recently opened pubs could be closed to offset a potential rise in coronavirus cases come September. The majority of the public (62%) would support a decision to close pubs to enable schools to reopen, with only 16% opposing the idea.
As the Government begins to wind-up the furlough scheme, however, sudden closures could be financially perilous for many pubs and small businesses. If the Government decided to close certain hospitality venues in order to reopen schools, two-thirds (66%) of the public would support the furlough scheme being restarted to assist workers affected, while only 10% would oppose.
The majority (55%) agree with the Government’s decision to make school attendance mandatory when the schools return in September, while roughly a quarter (23%) disagree. With the new academic year scheduled to start in a fortnight, there are still concerns that schools are not prepared to reopen safely and teachers’ unions have threatened to sue if teachers are put in danger. Nevertheless, the public back the decision to make school mandatory once again.
Agreement with the policy is divided along party lines: 72% of 2019 Conservative voters agree with the decision to make school attendance mandatory. Surprisingly, a plurality (44%) of 2019 Labour voters also agree with this policy, with only a third (34%) disagreeing. On one hand, the Labour Party has supported teachers’ unions and assured them that schools will only reopen when it is safe to do so, but, on the other hand, Labour leaders recognise that school closures harm the poorest students the most.
However, a substantial 24% of respondents with school-age children disagree with this decision, suggesting that a decent number of parents would like the freedom to choose whether to send their child to school or not.
At the same time, a strong majority (59%) of parents with school-aged children agree with the decision. The closure of schools has forced parents to take on the role of teacher at home and many may have realized that in-person teaching is better than the education they themselves can provide.
Overall, the public are sympathetic to the challenges involved in returning students to schools and understand that there could be delays. If schools are unable to reopen safely in the next few months, the public blame the inevitable challenges posed by the pandemic more than it would blame the Government. But the public would largely support drastic measures being taken – such as the closing of pubs and restarting the furlough scheme – if it meant schools could reopen, showing the importance of this issue. And, when schools do reopen, the public appears ready to back the Government’s decision to make school attendance mandatory.