Schools, Face masks and Seatbelts

What do seatbelts tell us about face masks in schools and where we are heading?

The UK government has now made face masks compulsory in shops in England. They say face masks are not needed inside schools (apart from a few cases, such as medical needs)

Face masks are a public safety issue.

Seatbelts are a public safety issue.

Recent opposition to compulsory face masks has been similar to opposition to rules on all drivers wearing seat belts (in 1982).

Who would argue against compulsory seatbelts now? Why did it take us so long?

Maybe in time, we will reflect on face masks during a pandemic and wonder why it took us so long?

Complaints: Face masks or seatbelts?

One of these boxes relates to seatbelts. The other to face masks. Which is which?
List A

List B

The complaints are very similar.

List A = seatbelts.
List B = face masks

Well done if you got it right! All references can be found below.

Educating the Public – Seatbelts

In the early 1970s, the number of drivers wearing a seatbelt was 14%. (1)

Public awareness campaigns appeared throughout the 1970s. Adverts gave statistics on the positive impact of wearing a seatbelt. The public were encouraged to wear seatbelts, if not for themselves, then for their families. (2)

After 10 years of this public education, the number of people wearing a seatbelt had risen from 14% to 33%. (1)

A fair question would be whether old cars, without fitted seatbelts, might be a reason for this? However, all cars had to have front seat belts fitted from 1967 (and many before this were also manufactured with seatbelts). (3)

Advice on buckling up, a small step to improve our safety, was largely ignored.

New Rule: Wear a seatbelt in the front seat.

Despite the fears of MPs that the police would be unable to enforce seatbelt laws, it became law in 1982.

The new rules meant that seatbelt usage rose from 33% to around 90% almost overnight. (4)

Importantly, attitudes changed as well and opposition slipped away.

Despite years of education, the real difference arose from rules, police encouragement and, ultimately, enforcement.

Schooling the Public: Face Masks

The UK Government has provided guidance on face masks for many weeks now. This recommends that, if you are in a public space, and social distancing is not possible, you should cover your face.

This advice was not well followed by the public.

At the start of June, 21% of British people were using face masks. (5)

By early July, this had risen to a 33% (for comparison, Spain and Italy, both heavily affected by COVID, passed the 33% figure more than 3 months earlier.) (6)

Face Masks whenin public places - Yougov tracker

Similar to seatbelt trends before 1982, the face masks trend has been on an upward trend.

But, it remained too low, until the new rules that is…

New Rule: Wear a face masks in shops

Despite the anxiety that the police will not be able to enforce this rule, this ignores other folk who help increase face mask usage. Shop managers, the public and the media have all played a role in raising awareness of the new rule and it’s benefits.

This has led to a remarkable rise in use of face masks in recent days.

Whilst it might not be 100% (and it might never be), the majority of people are now wearing face masks in shops.

So what next for face masks and schools

UK government guidance does not recommend face masks in school. (7)

It should be surprising that this has not been more widely challenged by heads, unions or parents.

However, it is only surprising until you consider the 66% of drivers who weren’t wearing seatbelts in 1980. There’s safety in numbers – but views on face masks might now be starting to change.

There has never been a habit of wearing face masks in schools or on buses that transport so many youngsters to and from school.

Everyone (older than 11) wearing a mask in school means adopting new habits and routines.

These habits and routines might have exceptions for some SEND situations (e.g. working with hearing impairment students, speech articulation activities and some complex severe learning difficulties or autism). Even with exceptions, new rules around face masks could still be very beneficial to helping prevent a second wave.

After all, despite the medical exemptions available for seatbelt use, they are estimated to have saved up to 60,000 lives since 1982.

Wearing face masks in shops will have made students, parents and school staff adopt a new routine, This new routine might need to be adopted in secondary schools by students and staff. This new routine might need to be adopted in primary schools by staff.

School Routines from elsewhere in the World

The World Health Organisation says that there is only limited evidence of the effectiveness of masks.  However, they say that, for areas of widespread transmission, with limited capacity for implementing control measures and especially in settings where social distancing of at least 1 metre is not possible – such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments – governments are advised to encourage the general public to use non-medical masks. (9)

Some countries have made the decision that school classrooms are confined public spaces where social distancing is not always possible. They have set out rules for children aged 11/12+ to wear face masks in schools (e.g. Singapore (all students aged 12+), France (students aged 11+) and Spain (where secondary students must wear masks, but can remove them once they get to their desk). (10/11/12/13)

England has not made this decision.


What next?

 School leaders, staff and parents should be open minded about face masks 
 being used in their school.

 Masks will not eliminate COVID, just like seatbelts do not eliminate injuries
 in car accidents.

However, like seatbelts, masks are part of a combination of habits that will keep us all safer.

That habit might also be needed in schools in autumn 2020.

Other Interesting reads

Where can I get more help?


  1. Figures come from data quoted by David Ennals, MP in the House of Commons, 28/07/1981
  2. Shaw Taylor, TV presenter, introduces the Clunk Click TV campaign in the early 1970s, 01/06/2011
  3. RAC Advice: Seatbelts compulsory from 1967, 09/05/2017
  4. Data on 90% seatbelt use following new rules. 08/09/2009
  5. Facemask stats for June 15/07/2020
  6. YouGov COVID-19 behaviour changes tracker 16/07/2020
  7. UK Government guidance on face masks in English schools 01/06/2020
  8. UK Government Guidance on face masks 24/06/2020
  9. Who page on Masks: When and how to use them 28/07/2020
  10. Singapore Ministry of Education guidance on Face masks Updated on 02/07/2020
  11. France – Face masks needed for secondary aged students 28/04/2020
  12. Spanish schools returning with face masks 11/06/2020
  13. Spanish Schools returning with face masks 12/06/2020

References – Face masks or Seatbelts

List A – Seat belts

List B – Face Masks

Picture References
Facemask Usage Graph – Yougov (updated)
Queueing schools students – Reuters
School student at desk – Independent

  • Aaron King, Director

    With over 20 years experience of working with children & young people in both mainstream and SEND settings, Aaron King is the driving force behind 9000lives.

    Aaron has written for the TES, including in the Leadership & Governance sections. He has also been a school governor for around 15 years.

  • Aaron King

    Aaron King Director

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