Whilst the Government guidance for full opening of schools in September 2020 stated staff should “Minimise contact between individuals and maintain social distancing whenever possible”, a plethora of classroom photographs shared on social media highlighted the disparity between public perception of the conditions under which schools reopened, and the reality.
To celebrate their full reopening after the first national lockdown, schools jubilantly shared first day images on their websites and social media channels. Some showed whole year groups of several hundred senior school pupils filling assembly halls, others were of large groups of children posing proudly.
Further shocking images – shared by individuals on social media – soon followed: photographs of fully occupied classrooms, packed corridors and pathways filled with students leaving school grounds en masse. These images made clear that children were being subjected to conditions where social distancing was an impossibility, and without a face covering in sight.
Reactions to these images ranged from disbelief that they had not been taken prior to the pandemic, to dismay that these conditions were allowed under Department for Education guidance, and that this was entirely out of step with Government guidance for every other setting.
Public messaging and media images in the immediate run up to the full reopening of schools provide context to these reactions. A now notorious photo op – involving the Prime Minister in an apparently socially distanced classroom – has since been criticised as potentially staged.
Parents United have since made further discoveries about the governments media work around the September return. The Cabinet Office, in reply to our Freedom of Information Request, has confirmed that £3.7 million was the allocated budget for the government’s “Back To School” marketing campaign, orchestrated by bespoke media planning and buying agency, Omnigov.
The Cabinet Office boast of having “negotiated a unique and unprecedented partnership with the newspaper industry“, which affords the government a “daily reach of over 35 million adults (69% of the UK population)”. Links between the media and the present government – and Cabinet Minister Michael Gove in particular – have been previously highlighted in a Byline Times investigation.
A slew of propaganda aimed at convincing the nation that schools were safe ensued, despite the reality that any funding for mitigations had to be found from overstretched existing budgets.
One Government sponsored editorial entitled “Safety first as school pupils return to classrooms” – published in several news outlets on 28th August 2020 – included an image of children sitting far apart, with a caption stating that pupils will be socially distanced in the classroom. Regardless of whether this image is of a real classroom (it certainly wasn’t taken after the September return), as parents we know these are not the experiences of our own children. We are also confident that this is not how the classrooms which the vast majority of our members children attend look.
Back To School propaganda images such as these may provide an answer to a question often raised in our group of 23,000 parents and carers – why do media outlets insist on using classroom images which do not reflect the reality of the conditions our children are actually experiencing?
Comments from our members include: “Where did they find that picture?? Cause there’s no schools looking like that round here!”, “It’s nothing like this in our school!! 6 kids and a teacher?!?! Where is the pics of 30+ kids and Teacher + TA!!” and, tellingly; “Those who do not have kids at school think you’re full of it when you tell them there is no distancing”.
This stubborn incongruence has been troublingly persistent. A bizarre example from The Sun stole the limelight in respect of the second reopening in March 2021, depicting a vast range of mitigations far too costly for most schools to install.
Desperately battling a monstrous narrative which appeared to have it’s claws deeply embedded in the national psyche, our members made numerous complaints to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and to specific media outlets – each one to frustratingly little avail.
A notable exception to the social distancing narrative was a BBC news piece, in which children in their classroom were asked for comment upon their return in September:
We are left wondering what the impact of the media portrayal of schools during the pandemic has been on public perception: it seems common sense that images of sparsely occupied classrooms with socially distanced furniture – and plenty of air for the occupants to share – would contribute to a sense that the same social distancing applied in classrooms as other settings.
Yet there simply isn’t enough space to make 2 meter distancing possible in most classrooms: pupils and teaching staff have less than half the amount of space compared to people in other workplaces under health and safety legislation, and UK schools have some of the smallest, most densely occupied classrooms in the developed world.
Parents United, education unions, and Independent SAGE made repeated calls for the government to reduce classroom occupant density in areas with high community infection rates, and for resources to protect children’s education where that measure was undertaken. While the government’s Contingency Framework laid out a tiered system using rotas for secondary aged children, no such plan or resourcing was never enacted.
Since the Back To School campaign, social distancing in our classrooms has remained a media fantasy out of kilter with the cramped conditions our children face on a daily basis. Meanwhile, schools have played a pivotal role in the spread of infection in our communities, and the ensuing chaos has ravaged the education to which our children are entitled.
This article was updated following the receipt of a reply to our Freedon of Information request to the Cabinet Office: