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Five children wearing backpacks enter a school.
Martin Rickett/PA

Why are more children in school now than during the first lockdown?

With families back in lockdown around the UK, it has immediately become apparent that the popular response to coronavirus restrictions in 2021 is very different to that of March 2020.

During the first lockdown, schools were attended by a very small number of vulnerable children and those of key workers. Today, though the rules are similar, attendance rates of over 50% are being reported by some schools.

Such high attendance is a concern – it means schools will continue to be a source of transmission for the virus, undermining efforts to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

It is particularly concerning that school attendance appears particularly high in areas of economic deprivation – such as my city of Leicester – when they are associated with high transmission of the virus.

Who counts as a key worker?

In looking for explanations as to why school attendance has remained high, it is natural to look to the government’s widened criteria for access to in-person schooling. While the definition of key worker is similar, with the addition of people working on Brexit arrangements, provisions are also being made for children who do not have the technology or space at home to learn online.

But this is surely only part of the story.

It is also important to account for the erosion of social norms around the “stay at home” message. It’s possible, for example, that employers who cut workers some slack in the first lockdown to support home schooling may be less willing, or financially able, to do so now.

Similarly, families that struggled on through the first lockdown with home schooling and full-time jobs may be understandably reluctant to repeat the exercise. These twin forces create strong incentives for employers to classify their workforce as key workers and for those workers to then send their children to school.

A girl sits at a kitchen table doing schoolwork.
Many parents are understandably reluctant to repeat the home schooling experiment of 2020. Martin Rickett/PA

To counteract these forces requires a collective sense of national effort and sacrifice for the public good. But the evidence on public goods shows that norms of cooperation quickly fade if individuals start to turn to self-interest.

In other words, the more employers classify staff as key workers and the more workers send their children to school, the more likely it is that others will follow suit. An attitude of “why should I struggle with home schooling when the schools are half full?” may prevail. Headlines that highlight the large number of children at school can actually exacerbate the problem, although parents’ WhatsApp groups would probably suffice to do the same.

Eroding social norms

We need to return to a norm of families only accessing in-school provision where it is absolutely unavoidable.

But norms of cooperation, once they have eroded, are tough to reinstate. Appeals for employers and workers to “to do their bit” are unlikely to be enough. To reinvigorate the sense of national sacrifice which prevailed during the first lockdown will almost certainly require positive action from the government.

Fortunately, there are some levers at its disposal. First, it can and should tighten the rules. For instance, some councils in Wales are using much stricter definitions of key worker than those used elsewhere.

Further restrictions on two-parent households that contain only one key worker are also possible. Crucially, this should be coupled with strong economic support for workers and businesses that cannot reasonably be expected to continue as normal while home schooling.

A mural of a doctor wearing PPE with angel wings above the words Key Workers'.
Our definition of key worker may have expanded but we need to keep school attendance low. Niall Carson/PA

During the summer months, when the government encouraged people to “Eat Out to Help Out”, the notion of key worker probably widened in the popular consciousness from someone essential to the health and safety of others to those who contribute to the overall economic wellbeing of the country. The dire demands on the NHS suggest we need to reset the framing and focus again on everyone staying at home if at all possible.

The government can also step up efforts to support remote learning. Laptops and broadband are essential but still lacking for many families, some of whom aren’t even able to get enough food under the government’s free school meal programme.

And so we come back to a familiar theme during this pandemic in terms of economic inequality. Once again it is the poorest families who will be hardest hit by the lockdown and the demands of home schooling.

It is essential, therefore, that appropriate economic and social support is provided to those who need it most. Otherwise the pressures on the education system will persist.

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