Low trust in government could undermine this week’s return to schools, new data suggests


Polling carried out this week by Populus on behalf of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), finds that the public are reticent about the government’s strategy for reopening schools.

In a newly published blog, the RSA outlines what needs to be done to rebuild trust and reform our education system after the pandemic.

Only 44% of the public trust the government to put children’s best interests first during the pandemic, versus 49% who do not. In comparison, 84% trust in classroom teachers, and 59% teaching unions.

Recent events have impacted this – 49% feel that the Government is too distracted by the Dominic Cummings affair to be making the right decisions about opening up schools, nurseries and colleges.

The public is split on when children should go back to school: Just 13% think that schools should reopen to all children in June, and a third support a phased return. A quarter (23%) only want schools to reopen once a vaccine has been found.

When considering how or when schools should be reopened, public health is by far the main priority. When asked to choose between the three options, 78% think that minimising the risk of infection to pupils and staff is the main priority, compared to just 12% for minimising disruption to education, and 10% enabling parents to return to work.

73% feel that the decision to reopen should be taken by head teachers in consultation with local authorities and following risk assessments, and 50% say that schools should only reopen when teaching unions agree that it’s safe to do so.

Over 90% want literacy and numeracy to be a focus when schools reopen, but the public also views the crisis as an opportunity for reforming the education system.

73% would like to see pupil development through partnerships between schools, employers and community organisations, and 75% would like more vocational or work-related education.

Perhaps as a response to the disruption and distress caused by the pandemic, there is strong appetite for greater pastoral support for children.

83% want schools to become more ‘relational’: ensuring every child has a trusted adult in school they can approach for support, a policy recommended in a recent RSA report on school exclusions.

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52% feel that providing social/emotional support should be a priority for disadvantaged pupils, and 62% would like teams of mental health professionals in schools. 54% would like more time spent on teaching well-being and resilience after the pandemic.

In response to the crisis, the RSA is calling for a ‘year of stabilisation’ to pull us out of the crisis and build bridges to the future, such as recruiting an army of volunteer teachers, and greater investment in digital learning.

Laura Partridge, associate director of education at the RSA, said: “Our survey demonstrates a low level of trust in the government, which could affect how parents and teachers respond to plans to reopen schools.

“The government will need to work closely with head teachers, teachers and local authorities – in whom the public trust – to develop a plan that everyone can support.

“The crisis could also be a time to rethink school priorities. Our findings show that the disruption caused by the pandemic has cemented the case for a greater focus on social and emotional support in schools.

“The public want to see a trusted adult allocated to each child in school and more dedicated mental health professionals available to pupils to ensure that children have the support they need to overcome the challenges posed by this crisis, and to build a thriving education system for the future.”

Anthony Painter, chief research and impact officer at the RSA, added: “Any Government would find the process of releasing lockdown very challenging as rules and messages become more complex.

“But there is clearly a need for repeated clarity and reassurance to build trust and our survey shows how important that will be over the coming days and weeks.

“To help with this, we have proposed a ‘year of stabilisation’ to provide clarity for schools and parents – safe access to schools for three days a week for every pupil and support outside of schools, increased support for the vulnerable, additional help for teachers including through expert volunteer tutors.

“If all those with influence on education work together, we can ensure safety and access to critical learning in the short term and explore how we can bridge to a better future for all children.”

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