The government has announced that schools don’t have to open fully until September. They’ve miraculously worked out that social distancing is impossible in the majority of schools – something the profession and teaching unions had told them months ago. Not one of the National Education Union’s Five Tests for re-opening has been met.
- Covid-19 numbers, i.e. rate of infections, aren’t “substantially” lower
- The social distancing national “plan” is in disarray
- “Comprehensive” regular testing is not available in the numbers required to ensure safety
- Isolation plans – should there be a Covid breakout in one institution – are localised and not supported by a coherent government policy
- Plans have not been put in place to protect vulnerable workers and parents/grandparents of pupils
(A short aside also suggests that the government’s own 5 tests for removing lockdown have also not been met.
As any decent educator will tell you, there’s a substantial difference between “being met” and “been met”.)
In effect, all of this demonstrates that the teaching unions, headteachers and staff working in schools were correct. They knew that it was impossible to maintain safety. They knew there were insufficient virus tests and PPE available to ensure the safety of everyone in schools, adults and children alike. They knew the restrictive size of their classrooms and recognised the social, emotional and learning needs of their children.
The education unions clearly, vociferously, assertively spoke out when others ridiculed them. They stoically persevered for the well-being of all. They turned the other cheek when Mr. Gove, barely restraining the glee on his face, suggested that a more formal approach to learning – in rows, socially distanced with an individual chalkboard – would have to be adopted.
And yet now, it comes to pass that the government has had to agree with them. But they didn’t actually say that (unless Gavin Williamson is about to break the record of recent Secretaries of State for Education and admit they got it wrong).
Did anyone hear an apology? Did they fully engage with all the education unions in a constructive discussion rather than a diktat? Did they go onto mainstream media and say sorry to teachers, educators and the teaching unions?
But why did we expect anything different? Countless governments over decades have not engaged appropriately with the professionals when making fundamental decisions about education in this country. That, in itself, is an abomination. The fact that they can’t even apologise when they do get it wrong is hardly a shock.
This is yet another demonstration of the inappropriate meddling from non-expert politicians in the construct and management of education.
A week ago, Grant Shapps was on Sky News talking about the upgrading of the A66 between Cumbria and Yorkshire – desperately trying to deflect from other car journeys from, say, London to Durham and back. He referred to himself as an “expert” in transport.
Government ministers are rarely experts in the area of their portfolio.
For example, here’s a list of the last few education secretaries:
- Gavin Williamson is an expert fireplace salesman
- Damien Hinds worked in the hospitality industry before he became an MP
- Justine Greening is an accountant by trade
- Nicky Morgan is a solicitor, specialising in corporate law
- Michael Gove is a journalist
- Ed Balls pursued the ‘E’ part of his PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) degree
- Alan Johnson was a postman
- Ruth Kelly (remember her?) was also an economist
- Charles Clarke also specialised in Economics and Mathematics
You have to go as far back as the early 2000s to find a Secretary of State for Education who had an education qualification, and by her own admission, Estelle Morris wasn’t “up to the job”. David Blunkett also had an education qualification but his experience in school was evidently limited, judging by the imposition of stringent didactic policies such as the Primary Literacy and Numeracy hours.
When are politicians going to realise that they are not experts?
The lack of engagement with professionals has always been abhorrent. The imposition of a National Curriculum, with content enabled at the whim of the Secretary of State, was shocking. The “standards agenda” pushed forward at the expense of the arts, of social and emotional learning, etc, (essential for children and young people) was and remains negligent. At a time of national crisis, it’s incomprehensibly foolish not to trust professionals in their sphere of expertise.
The government should do the correct thing and acknowledge that they got this wrong, and while they’re at it, it would be a good opportunity to admit to other errors in the management and the messages given during this pandemic.
And perhaps then they could reflect on the definition of the word “expert” and consider working with not dictating to those who have spent their lives in the pursuit of their profession.
Talking of professionals, it’s also worth noting that the current head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, has no teaching qualifications either, and neither does the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield.
For people who haven’t worked in schools, it’s almost impossible to understand how schools operate, how children learn, how they congregate, how they need interaction, guidance, facilitation, assurance – none of which can be operated at a social distance.
We fully appreciate and agree with some of Anne Longfield’s concerns about vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, and that fact that school closure exacerbates some of their problems.
However, opening schools and endangering all within isn’t necessarily the solution to addressing these specific needs. Furthermore, schools are open now for many students. The difficulty and the issue that needs to be addressed is how to engage with those unfortunate enough to be unable to access the curriculum or pursue their own independent learning right now.
Part of that answer is in addressing the reasons why these young people aren’t engaging with the offer from their schools.
Schools and schooling do need to return, when it’s safe to do so and the only way to do this is for politicians to work with headteachers and unions, giving local autonomy to managers of education to make the choices required for a safe return.
An apology for not listening to teaching unions over this issue would be a very good starting point for a government that ought to be prepared to show some contrition, and acknowledge who the real experts are.
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