It’s easy to see why Boris Johnson is keen to reopen Britain’s classrooms. Closing schools has put vulnerable children at higher risk, widened inequality and deepened the economic slump caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
No question, the closure of schools is going to keep educationalists, sociologists and economists busy for years to come. There will be studies galore about the long-term impact of the lockdown on child development, social mobility, well-being and lifetime earnings. The findings are likely to make depressing reading, not least as there is evidence that depriving young people of education is bad news in a world where human capital matters more than ever before.
No country wants to leave schools closed for longer than is necessary, but the incentives for the UK to reopen are perhaps higher than for most. For decades governments of both left and right have been using sticks and carrots to persuade new parents to join the workforce, which is one reason why Britain entered the current crisis with record levels of employment.
But, as Samuel Tombs, of the consultancy Pantheon economics, points out, it also meant school closures had more of an impact in the UK than in other countries. By his estimate, about 8% of employees have been forced to stay at home to look after their children. Some of these 2.5 million people will now be able to go back to work.
The evidence from the rest of the world looks encouraging. Schools have reopened in places such as France and Germany without any interruption in the rapid decline in Covid-19 cases and deaths. That seems consistent with the idea that children do not readily transmit the virus.
Yet, while the infection rate in the UK has fallen markedly from its peak in April, it is still higher than it was in Germany and France when the schools were reopened. In Spain and Italy, where infection rates per head of population are similar to the UK’s, teaching has not resumed. That, coupled with the fact that primary school classes are on average higher than the European average, means the prime minister should remember the advice of the Roman emperor Augustus: make haste slowly.