The traditional civil service approach to decision making will not be enough to build parents’ and teachers’ confidence in a safe return, writes Natalie Perera

A fundamental skill of the civil service is being able to weigh up a range of factors in order to reach a policy recommendation. It’s an important craft, particularly in a profession where one has to remain objective and free from politics and ideologies. This approach leaves ministers with the ability to pursue policies based on whether they value the economic, health, education or any other benefit the most.

It’s tempting to apply this approach to the decision to reopen schools. As the number of daily cases and deaths continue to fall, we must consider how we rebuild the economy, get back to work and to our normal lives. Also at the forefront of our minds is the lost learning time that many children will have experienced during this period; time that disadvantaged children can ill afford.

But in this case, when faced with a global and deadly pandemic, policymakers need to rethink the traditional approach of balancing all the factors. Now, the scientific advice must take precedence over everything else.

The announcement that the government will look to reopen schools to certain year groups from June 1 has generated endless debate. That debate has been, understandably, driven by a need to protect children, teachers, families, businesses and society. It has, at times, been polarised and divisive.

A two-way dialogue between policymakers and practitioners is crucial

That is why it is crucial that the government publishes the scientific advice behind any decision to reopen schools in full and with urgency. Until it does so, we cannot expect parents or teachers to feel completely confident in the decision to go back to school.

Government guidance needs to be clear about the risk of spreading the virus and needs to set out the safety precautions that must be put in place in order to mitigate that risk. On the critical issue of tracking and tracing, we are already seeing a chasm between the advice from the scientists and statements from politicians.

The guidance must also consider lessons learned internationally from countries that have already begun to reopen schools and it must be realistic in how those measures can be implemented, for example, by considering staggering reopening dates between infant pupils. It must also address pupils who have additional or acute health needs – a group who have been largely overlooked during this debate.

A two-way dialogue between policymakers and practitioners is crucial. The scientists know best about the transmission of the virus. Practitioners know best about how children behave and the environments that enable them to thrive.

If battle lines continue to be drawn now, the government will find it difficult to retreat if it needs to do so. But it is imperative that it has the ability to withdraw if it looks like the virus is spreading, and it should be able to do so without fear of reputational damage. With rigorous testing and monitoring in place, the option to cancel or scale back reopening should always remain on the table. A pact between government and the sector needs to be made to ensure that decisions made further down the line can be guided by the science and not by politics or point-scoring.

In turn, the government should respect the decisions of school leaders if they, with their governing bodies and trusts, conclude that they cannot reopen in a way that complies with the guidance. The choices of parents should also be respected and the decision by government not to penalise parents for non-attendance of their children is absolutely right. At the same time, the government will need to consider how it targets support to disadvantaged families if, as the IFS find, they are less likely to send their children back to school in June.

The decision about when to start to reopen schools more widely is not an easy one. But it is crucial that when the government announces its final decision later this month, it must do so with full transparency, with the full weight of the scientific evidence behind it and with the expertise of the sector in how to implement it.