Too early to reopen schools : look at Europe

learning at home

Some European countries have started reopening schools as part of a relaxation of the Coronavirus lockdown. Not surprisingly, there are some calls to do the same here so maybe it’s worth making some comparisons.

Firstly, Britain is one of the most damaged countries in Europe. Although London avoided the extreme situation of Madrid or Milan and hospitals just about coped, the death rate is very high. Data from John Hopkins University (29 April) shows deaths per 100,000 of population for major Western European countries as:

Spain 52
Italy 46
UK 39
France 36
Germany 8

The figure for the UK is based on 26,166 deaths and includes care homes, but it is undoubtedly an underestimate; when we compare deaths during recent weeks with averages for this time of year, the number of ‘surplus’ deaths is far higher. An estimate by the Financial Times (22 April) suggests 41,000 more people have died than normally happens.

Some countries which had a lot of Coronavirus cases were much better prepared. Germany has had only 6288 deaths; it entered the crisis with three times as many hospital beds and five times as many intensive care beds as Britain. There was no shortage of protective clothing, ventilators or tests. Even now the German government is showing far more respect for front-line workers than here: it has just agreed a 1000 euro bonus for full-time care home staff.

Schools reopening

schools closed

The first countries to start reopening schools were Denmark and Norway. Denmark has had only 443 deaths and Norway 207. The re-opening was cautious and partial, involving only some pupils and strict regulations. The Norwegian government, reopening Year 1-4 (6-10 year olds) from the 27 April, permitted no more than 15 pupils per room. (Source: Dagsrevyen television news, 21 April) The teacher union made clear that this would require some teachers from higher years, so those older pupils wouldn’t be able to return. The guidelines were:

  • make sure there are good handwashing routines
  • let pupils learn outdoors as much as possible
  • have fixed places to sit and good distancing
  • different break times
  • limit distribution of equipment
  • limit the use of collective transport

It is hard to imagine English schools being able to do the same. For a start, many classes have 35 pupils, and we don’t have a strong tradition of outdoor learning.

In Germany, the first region to try to re-open primary schools was Hessen. It was decided that Year 4 (the final year of German primary schools) should attend. Parents took the regional government to court to stop this, and won.

Next came Nord-Rhein Westfalen (NRW), the biggest and most urban region. NRW chose to bring back only the final years of secondary and primary schools. Classes would be divided between different rooms, and attend on alternate days. There would be strict distancing, and no PE or music. Older pupils protested, arguing that their relatives’ health should not be jeopardised by them sitting final exams and that teacher grades should be used instead.


The federal education minister (ZDF television news, 28 April) has just announced that all pupils should be back at school by the summer holidays, but this would depend on decisions by each regional government and would probably be only part-time with classes alternating daily or weekly. There would be strict distancing, and a maximum of 15 per class. The teacher unions and parent organisations are up in arms because they believe it isn’t safe.

As explained earlier, Germany is only able to do this due to the strength of its health provision, and the very effective way it has dealt with the crisis. The UK has had four times as many deaths as Germany, even by our government’s limited statistics.

The countries with the highest death rates are very reluctant to reopen schools. France will start reopening in June. Italy will not reopen until September. Spain has just announced that most pupils will be off till September, though with some exceptions

  • nursery children under 6 whose parents are at work can return
  • pupils studying for university entrance can return if they wish

and only if conditions are right for a particular region to move to phase 2 of de-escalation. That may take some time: so far, only four very small islands are moving on to phase 1.

Pushing for schools to reopen?

When these comparisons are considered, it seems foolish to push for an early start. The UK government is by no means getting on top of the crisis.

Of course, the usual appeals to social justice are being made. Ofsted have warned that online schoolwork could cause even bigger achievement gaps. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) argue that poorer households are being hit because of a lack of wifi, space and parental skills. They say extending the lockdown could risk “reversing” all the gains made in narrowing the attainment gap. Reversing the gains? The EPI research which EEF cite says that, at the government’s current pace, it will take 560 years to close the gap!

Sadly, opposition leader Keir Starmer is also pressing the government to reopen schools soon.  This must not be rushed. It would make more sense to insist that that every child is well fed, that their parents have enough money to pay the bills, and that pupils who fall behind are provided with individual tutorial support.

empty classroom

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