For parents and teachers, getting back to school will be a leap of faith

It’s high summer on the beaches of Suffolk and Norfolk, and the bucket-and-spade season is in full swing. But for some families, holidays are ending early this year.

School starts next week for hundreds of teenagers at a handful of local secondaries operated by the Inspiration academy trust, from Cromer to Great Yarmouth and inland to Norwich. First back will be children facing GCSEs or A-levels next year, whose summer is being cut short to make up for time lost in lockdown.

When the rest follow in September, they’ll have to adjust not only to staying inside their year group “bubble”, but to longer school days and optional Saturday lessons to help them catch up. When I ask how much difference an August start can really make, the trust’s chief executive Rachel de Souza cries: “Every hour makes a difference! Particularly in schools with disadvantaged cohorts, that time in front of a teacher is critical.” It may all sound a bit brutal, but she says many students who have watched the world collapse around them this summer are anxious for help; they know their grades now matter more than ever.

If the way in which this year’s A-level results were concocted feels unfair, then just wait for next year, when teenagers with wildly different experiences of education under lockdown are all judged on the same exam. Some will have barely missed a beat academically, thanks to live-streamed online lessons (routinely offered by private schools, more rarely by state ones) or help from parents. Others won’t even have had an internet connection for six months, or the emotional safe haven that school sadly represents for some. The pandemic threatens to unravel years of hard work on closing the gap between rich and poor children, and the consequences if schools can’t reopen fully this autumn don’t bear thinking about. But saying so doesn’t wish away the judgments of Solomon involved.

September can’t come soon enough for many parents, after months of trying to work with children underfoot or worrying about them falling behind. (One Mumsnet survey of parents whose children went back briefly in July found 66% of those with children taking GCSEs next year were anxious about them missing out on education, compared to just 3% worried that their school’s Covid precautions weren’t safe enough.)

Headteachers, too, have spent the summer poring over every aspect of school life, in a largely unsung effort to reduce risk through design; de Souza started planning back in Easter, without waiting for a lead from government, and it shows. Her directors of primary and secondary education confidently rattle off Covid-proofing measures covering everything from the journey in (school bus routes have been reorganised to keep different year groups apart where possible) to PE lessons (contact sports like football are out, athletics in) and the lunchtime queue for the canteen. This week’s shakeup of a much-criticised national test-and-trace operation, which shifts the job of detecting and halting outbreaks closer to grassroots level, should also help.

But for some parents and teachers, especially those who have been shielding for medical reasons, going back remains a terrifying prospect. It doesn’t help that the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who this week apologised plaintively to families for the disruption, looks increasingly out of his depth.

Ministers’ dog-ate-my-homework excuse for months of confusion is that teaching unions are wilfully making life difficult by issuing demands that can’t be met. But talk to ordinary heads and teachers, and what comes tumbling out is understandable anxiety tempered with a powerful sense of vocation. When the Inspiration Trust appealed for staff willing to work in August, far more teachers volunteered than were actually needed.

In Scotland, where schools went back as normal this week, a survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland union found over half its members felt unsafe going back, but nearly two-thirds supported the decision to reopen nonetheless. Teachers tend to know exactly why their jobs matter, even when they fear those jobs might make them sick.

As head of the Manchester Academy in inner-city Moss Side, James Eldon admits that he could “lie awake at night twitching” about it all if he let himself. His city is already under emergency restrictions following a spike in Covid infections and, while the measures covering parts of West Yorkshire, Lancashire and Greater Manchester are due for review next week, the fear is they are more likely to be tightened than relaxed, with signs of a surge in cases among young people released from lockdown. (One in five new cases in Calderdale are among those under 18, according to Josh Fenton Glynn, a local councillor and former Labour parliamentary candidate for Calder Valley; in Preston, almost half of new cases are reportedly in people under 30.) Talk on the ground is all about what sacrifices might be needed so that schools can reopen safely; could pubs have to close, to avoid pushing things past the tipping point? Few would argue that the right to an education beats the right to a Saturday night out, but in the long run these are also choices between saving jobs in hospitality today or preparing children for jobs tomorrow. There is growing debate, too, about whether schools should encourage older children to wear masks now they are used to doing so in shops.

But for Eldon, it all comes down to a conviction that the best thing for his students is to return to a school that’s as safe as he can possibly make it. He worries that six months off is long enough to break the habit of going to school for some, with older teenagers beginning to question the whole point of education. Why work for exams, when the class of 2020 have nothing to show for it but imaginary grades and heartbreak? What’s the point of university, if you’ll just be following lectures online from home? “They’ve got to have confidence that it’s going to be worth something,” says Eldon, who thinks the sooner pupils get back into a routine the better.

What everyone in education knows but nobody wants to say, however, is that nothing in a time of Covid can ever be completely safe. Risks can be reduced, but never wholly eliminated. It seems likely that children under 16 play a limited role in spreading the virus, but the picture for sixth-formers is less clear. Some questions won’t be definitively answered until schools open again, which leaves teachers and parents facing a leap of faith that for some may feel strangely familiar.

One of the hardest lessons of parenthood is accepting that we can’t keep our babies safe forever; that every time we let them out of sight, there’s a tiny but terrifying chance they won’t come back. You never forget the first time you let a four-year-old walk across the playground to the classroom without you. This year, however old our overgrown children may be, parents will wave them off while silently holding their breath.