Coronavirus: Getting England's schools back may be the first big test

Children in a classroom Image copyright Getty Images

"We'll be judged on how we get out of it, not how we got into it."

Inside Downing Street there is an acute awareness that the gradual move out of the lockdown is going to be much more complicated than slamming the doors in the first place.

That's the case both in terms of creating plans and policies that give people enough reassurance to take tiny steps to start to get back to normal, only weeks after the peak of a terrible disease, and trying to do so without taking on too much political water, when the consensus that shaped the start of the crisis has already started to fray.

And the ongoing tussle over England's return to schools is perhaps the first big test.

The possibility of children going back to school, beyond relatively small numbers who have been attending throughout - the kids of key workers and some of the most vulnerable children with special needs - was floated by government well before the prime minister's big speech last Sunday.

Getting schools back is considered crucial for so many reasons: for kids' education - particularly for those from less advantaged backgrounds, but to allow more parents to get back to work too, and stitching back parts of the social fabric that have been so under strain.

Simply, it matters enormously to millions of families, with 8.8 million children in state schools in England.

So when the prime minister announced his ambition that schools would go back at the start of next month it was huge, even though it applied only to a few year groups.

Remember right now, the plans for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not to reopen before the summer holidays.

In the last few days however, council after council in England, including the Conservative council Solihull, have very publicly been raising doubts about whether they can be ready in time, and whether it is safe.

Some of the government's own scientific advisers have warned it's important that the testing, tracking and tracing system should be up and running before schools open again fully too.

The prime minister suggested today that it would be, but it's fair to say that's quite the promise.

There's been some pretty tough push back against the government's plans from the unions, and no surprise, some pretty punchy political briefings right back at them.

In summary, it's not surprising all that might leave some parents confused - anxious, even - and stuck in the middle of a political row that none of them asked for, wondering whether their kids should be sharpening their pencils to go back in 10 days, or whether the PE kit can remain lost somewhere down the back of the sofa for another few weeks.

Government sources are trying loudly to remind everyone that the plan was always an ambition, and always conditional.

The prime minister's 'road map' did make it clear that England will only move into 'Step Two' when the five tests ministers have set out repeatedly have been met. (There's a great reminder from my colleague Nick Triggle here on what they are.)

That decision will be taken, not by the Department of Education, but by Number 10 at the end of next week.

There's also some sense of frustration that they have tried to answer many of the questions now being posed.

Of course, parents and teachers worry that it's just not feasible to get groups of wriggling five-year-olds to stay 2 metres apart.

But the guidance published states that as long as children stay within their smaller groups at a maximum of 15, the 2 metre rule does not have to be followed.

It's also worth noting that in other European countries schools have started to go back too - you can read about how Denmark did it here.

But the row has become louder than the volume of explanation.

And you can't avoid the complexity and the challenge of getting more kids back. Buildings, staffing, cleaning rotas, teaching itself, are only some of the things that will have to be different in a matter of weeks.

Even with pages of guidance, as one cabinet minister acknowledges you "just can't itemise every single thing".

And there is worry among many of the public, told for weeks to stay home to be safe, but are now being told to send the youngest members of their families to a different place.

Add traditional tensions between the Tories and the teaching unions, and then mix in the roles, and politics of the 150 different local authorities with responsibility for education in England, and the various school academy groups too and, well, you have a situation that is enormously more complicated than what one politician, even a very senior one, says at a desk in Downing Street.

In part, the government created problems for itself by allowing that critical gap, of even a day or so, between the prime minister's announcements about the phased return on that Sunday night, and the detailed guidance of exactly what it would mean in practice.

But as one minister acknowledged, "you have to have a period of people settling into what the norm is going to be".

It may take an awful lot of political wrangling to get there. Getting schools back may be the first big challenge, but it certainly won't be the last.