I’m writing this in late June and as a leader of a primary school. We still do not know what schooling for children in September will look like, with just three weeks left of the academic year. There is a general view from teachers and parents that the process of school reopening has been a shambles, even though teachers have worked hard to get their schools open and provide a safe space for learning.
The four nations have diverged in their approach, the Westminster government has not listened to school leaders’ views and scientific advice has been at times contradictory, which has confused parents who do not feel reassured and are worried about the safety of their children. The government have instead used this as an opportunity to relaunch their coalition years’ assault on ‘the Blob’, made up of the educational establishment and teaching unions. This Brexit Government, stuffed full of the Vote Leave team, has never liked experts and that is not going to change now.
In England, the first nation to reopen schools to some children, only 25% of eligible pupils have gone back to school during the first week in June. This number has only increased slightly over the rest of June. The blame for low numbers returning lies squarely with the Government, who instead of working to reassure teachers and parents, took it as an opportunity to further undermine the ‘left wing’ profession, rather than working together on an agreed approach. This can be seen in the front pages of the Daily Mail, first attacking teacher unions followed by the BMA and doctors, who supported a more careful approach to reopening.
While the Government’s own scientific body, SAGE, modelled various scenarios for reopening schools, including a rota system that many schools planned for, the Department for Education decided to pluck their own guidance from thin air, asking primary schools to reopen for Early Years, Year 1 and Year 6 from June 1st. These younger children are the ones least able to social distance. This was very much against the advice from headteachers and senior leaders, who were feeding into the DfE and asked for older year groups to come back first. What followed was an avalanche of 41 sets of changes to its guidance for headteachers on reopening, some of it contradictory. The independent SAGE group, chaired by Sir David King, also warned that waiting just two more weeks to reopen would halve the risk to children.
Even though the R-rate of infection did not differ drastically across the four nations, each administration has taken divergent paths to reopening, causing further confusion for parents. While England’s schools have opened up early, in Scotland schools will stay closed until August when they will reopen with a ‘blended model of home-learning and school-learning’. In Wales, schools will open from the end of June on a rota system of a third in school at any one time. Meanwhile, schools in Northern Ireland will open part time for priority cohorts in late August, with social distancing of 1 metre permitted for children, as opposed to 2 metres for adults. This mix and match approach offers no consistent approach to children’s education in the United Kingdom, and undermines the Conservative and Unionists Party’s supposed support of the Union.
A report this month from the Government’s social mobility commission concluded that there are now 600,000 more children living in relative poverty than in 2012. To make matters worse, from introducing a hard-to-use voucher system during lockdown for children entitled to free school meals, which created weeks of problems in issuing desperately needed food vouchers to the most disadvantaged children, the government then compounded their error by saying they would not be continuing to provide this vital support over the summer holidays. Not the most politically attuned decision, further playing into the narrative of a heartless Tories who does not care. It took the intervention of a footballer, Marcus Rashford, to force the government into a policy U-turn, to stop many children going hungry over the summer holidays.
Getting all children back into school with their teachers should be the key priority of any government. For the Labour Party, it is a matter of social justice. But at the same time this has to be balanced with when it is safe to do so, both for the children and school staff. This has been the sensible approach Labour has for advocated throughout this debate. At a recent PMQs, Starmer said the whole issue has been a “completely avoidable mess” and the Prime Minister should “take responsibility for his own failures on this issue”. He also accused him of “flailing around trying to blame others”. The Prime Minister tried to deflect blame, accusing the Labour leader of having the “great ox” of the education unions “stood upon his tongue”. In response, Labour very sensibly demanded the establishment of a national task force including unions, parents’ representatives and medical experts to work out a way to get children back into the classroom safely. The Government now states it is its ‘intention’ for all children to return from September.
So what can we learn from this debacle? This fiasco of school reopening has shown the need to build up the professional independence of school leaders and teachers through organisations like the Chartered College of Teaching. Teachers need a strong voice, based on their expertise and experience of being the people on the front line, to match the British Medical Association. It has also highlighted the importance of the teaching unions, working in the best interests of both children and teachers in a moderate and constructive manner.
Educators should never again wait to be dictated to by both a Prime Minister who has little interest in the sector, whose experience of schooling was from the rugby fields of Eton, and a cabinet of which two thirds are privately educated.
Oliver Parsons is an Assistant Head of a primary school in North London and previously worked in Parliament for Hilary Armstrong MP, working on the 2010 Labour Party Children’s Manifesto. He also served as a school governor for five years. He has recently joined Twitter, @OliverHParsons