Why can sports bust the rule of six when student societies can’t?

Last week the former editor of Schools Week Laura McInerney pointed out that our social distancing rules don’t have to make comparative sense.

Clearly, Covid spreads as easily when sat closely in a restaurant or at home, it spreads as easily at 9.59pm as at 10.01pm, and it spreads across classrooms of 30 as easily as in wedding ceremonies of 30.

But as Laura pointed out, that’s also sort of the point. This thing spreads in loads of ways. So the choice is stop nothing, everything, or some things. And the stopping of chosen “some” things will inevitably feel arbitrary when in comparison because, in risk terms, they somewhat are.

That would be fine if the inconsistencies were by design. But when it comes to students and social activity, it’s starting to look like chaotic cock-up rather than a planned choice of measures.

We’ve known for a long time that the UK’s 30,000 student clubs and societies are a crucial component of the student experience. They reduce loneliness, imbue skills and graduate attributes, and broaden horizons. Involvement in them is closely correlated to wellbeing, good mental health and confidence in course and employment outcomes.

The problem is that they have become the casualty of Covid-19 caution across the sector, not least because societies are being framed exclusively as social activity, and so to be subject to “rule of six” restrictions. This has never made much sense – the activities are educational and run by students’ union charities, both of which enjoy specific exemptions in the legislation around the UK.

St Andrews understands this. In her message to students a couple of weeks ago Principal Sally Mapstone announced the St Andrews “Can Do” initiative, a collaboration between the university and the students’ association that will support students, and staff, with creative solutions and resource. Cleverly, it’s underpinned by legal advice that (pretty obviously) links involvement in societies to the university’s graduate attribute framework.

Last Friday BUCS announced that following discussions with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) and Sport England, indoor sports for students across higher education in England are exempt from the rule of six. It says it lobbied specifically on the issue of student wellbeing, both physical and mental, and the Sport England site says organised sport at university is for the purpose of education, so is exempt.

That raises an interesting question. Right now most universities are running off messaging from the higher education task force where universities minister Michelle Donelan indicated that societies were not exempt from the “Rule of Six” even where events were properly risk assessed and socially distanced. But that makes no sense.

How can we be in a situation where a game of dodgeball indoors is considered to be “educational”, but a film screening from an academic society isn’t? And given the diversity profile of students involved in student sport rather than societies, we should surely worry about this from an EDI point of view.

The apparent prohibition on in-person student group activity certainly isn’t a worry for the Oxford Union (not the SU, the debating club). This charity, whose aim is to advance education, seems perfectly at liberty to organise events for more than six. Presumably its trustees – including the Leader of the House of Commons – are happy.

Maybe the Oxford Union isn’t using the “education” exemption at all but is instead using the charity one. What’s that you say? The legislation includes a “Rule of Six” exemption for charity service provision, and this week the Charity Commission updated its guidance on Covid-19. “There are some exceptions where groups can be larger than 6 people”, it says, “and this includes providing voluntary or charitable services”. It goes on: “This means you can hold trustee or members’ meetings of more than 6 people where these meetings are necessary for providing charitable services.”

Either way, on the assumption that we’re not seriously proposing that students spend six months only spending time with the people they live with, we should surely be issuing some consistent advice here and helping students and their unions to organise safe activity that always has been both educational and social.

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