UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets head teacher Bernadette Matthews while he visits St Joseph’s Catholic School in Upminster, London, Britain, on August 10 2020. Picture: POOL VIA REUTERS/LUCY YOUNG
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets head teacher Bernadette Matthews while he visits St Joseph’s Catholic School in Upminster, London, Britain, on August 10 2020. Picture: POOL VIA REUTERS/LUCY YOUNG

London — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to make getting UK children back to school a “national priority” has a clear rationale — it is the only way to get their parents back to work.

Parents are bearing the brunt of the economic costs of the pandemic as they were forced to look after their children full time under lockdown, official data show.

Safety for pupils, staff and parents make Johnson’s plan a complex operation and there are concerns that it could fuel a rise in cases of Covid-19. But with the UK posting the biggest economic contraction in Europe in the second quarter and employment falling by the most since the global financial crisis, the government is looking for ways to revive growth as it unwinds other support programmes later this year.

The state has already stepped in to pay up to 80% of the wages for 9.6-million jobs. Even with that support, many households have been left on a reduced income before the programme began tapering this month and especially those with children, who were more likely to have been furloughed.

Family members have not shared the additional burden equally. Women have disproportionately shouldered the load as parents attempt to keep their offspring busy and continue their education away from the classroom.

Female participation in the labour market hit record levels in recent years, boosting economic output, but the jump in caring responsibilities caused by the closure of schools could undo some of these gains.

Women with children were 47% more likely to have lost or quit their job since the start of restrictions and 14% more likely to have been furloughed than fathers, according to an online Institute for Fiscal Studies survey in May.

Home schooling is taking its toll on all parents, both in terms of wellbeing and ability to work. One quarter said that trying to teach was negatively affecting their job — a concern for a nation that had some of the weakest productivity growth among developed economies even before the pandemic.

“It’s important for the economy that children are back in school so parents can go back to work,” school standards minister Nick Gibbs said. “The economy is an important part of the recovery from this virus.”

School closures also raise fears that a generation of children are falling behind in their education, weighed down by a lack of motivation, support and facilities to learn at home. That risks stunting productivity well into the future.

Despite reservations about the safety and practicalities of returning pupils to the classroom in September, a proportion of the population have had the ability to keep their children there throughout the pandemic.

About one in three parents are key workers, meaning they could continue to send children to school for child care. That did not trigger a notable surge in the virus.

Elsewhere in Europe, governments have also begun reopening without infections escalating sharply.

“Now that we know enough to reopen schools to all pupils safely, we have a moral duty to do so,” Johnson wrote in the Mail on Sunday newspaper.

Bloomberg

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