Judging both the impact of school closures and the likely growth fillip from their reopening is hugely difficult, but the Centre for Economics and Business Research suggests a “substantial” economic bounce of around £70bn a year, or 3.3pc of GDP. The bald statistics show that schools account for 6pc of GDP but with output still a third down on pre-Covid levels in June, mathematically growth should rise by around 2pc on reopening.
The quirks of the ONS’s seasonal adjustment process mean that despite schools being closed in August – as they would be in a typical year – educational “output” will actually rise in that month.
Harder to judge is the wider indirect impact of freed-up parents able to concentrate fully on the day job – or head back to the office if unable to work remotely. The CEBR estimates some 6.9m households with children of school age, while the ONS’s surveys suggest that around 61pc of parents with dependent children say their ability to work has been affected.
Doug McWilliams, chief executive, says: “It does appear that most of the impact on work has been shifting of working patterns – time use data indicates that actual reduction in working hours during lockdown as a result of home schooling for those doing jobs has been about 5pc.”
Working those extra hours adds another 0.8pc to GDP, he says. The consultant’s previous research also indicates around half of those working at home would prefer to return to the workplace. Applying this to the parents affected by home schooling suggests another 5pc return of workers overall, providing an extra 0.3pc fillip in terms of hospitality spending. But while reopening schools will give a much-needed lift to the economy, academics have warned that keeping them all open may be more difficult as infection rates rise, involving growth-sapping trade-offs.
The Royal Society’s recent report, “Balancing the Risks of Pupils Returning to Schools”, has called for older children to wear masks and for specific plans to be put in place to deal with local outbreaks. The study has been regularly cited by the PM as evidence schools are “safe”, but Anna Vignoles, a University of Cambridge professor and co-author of the report, puts the emphasis on “safer”.
Whereas shops, pubs and even zoos were open for weeks while schools remained shut, the educational damage to children and the impact on their mental and physical health means that in future, keeping schools open should be “front and centre”. That would “sometimes mean you close down bits of activity proactively”, she argues.
She says: “We have already seen areas where infections have risen, action has been taken and infections start to fall, and that is going to happen in many areas of the country over the next year. In managing those increases we need to be very proactive about keeping levels as low as we can, partly so we can keep sending our kids and young people to school.