Schools will continue to protect the vulnerable even if the government won’t

Alec Shelbrooke didn’t vote to extend free school meals to children during school holidays because he was wary of “adding [an] additional administrative burden to schools”. Whilst it is always nice to hear concerns about teacher workload from a Member of Parliament, especially one that has consistently voted in favour of real term cuts to school funding forcing us to do more with less; it is important to expose this sentiment for the offensive nonsense that it is.

The simple fact is that schools have stepped up throughout this crisis to support families in need. Without fuss or complaint, thousands of school staff, both teaching and non-teaching, have gone above and beyond to limit the impact of the crisis on the children that we are fortunate to serve.

Throughout lockdown, schools remained open so that vulnerable children were able to continue to learn. Lessons were taught, independent study spaces were staffed and hot meals were provided. At the height of the crisis, teachers, support staff and dinner ladies put the children’s interests above their own. They provided a sense of normality and safety for children who really needed it.

When the crisis turned the world upside down, schools transformed into community centres in order to offer the support that their families needed. Advice on applying for universal credit for families thrown into unemployment by the ripples of lockdown. Food parcels ordered, packaged and delivered to families who needed them. School budgets squeezed to provide laptops and learning materials to children who needed to study. Free school meal vouchers ordered despite a website that crashed at the slightest demand.

When September brought an insistence that schools opened in spite of fears of a second wave, schools answered the call. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work, writing contingency plan after contingency plan, to create an environment that was safe for children to learn and staff to work. All of this done in the face of ever changing, and often contradictory, government advice that was often released on a Friday night in a meek effort to avoid scrutiny. Eventually, thanks to the efforts of school leaders and estates staff, children were welcomed back on time.

And now we are back, school staff have ensured that the experience of children has been as normal as possible. Year group bubbles, staggered starts, face coverings at social times and countless other safety measures put in place to allow schools to reopen have made things different. But, thanks to the kindness and warmth of teachers and teaching assistants, the children have been able to take these changes in their stride. Learning has continued, friendships have blossomed and the simple joys of childhood have restarted.

This has happened in spite of the increased demands that the reopening of schools has placed on staff. Remote learning planned alongside normal lessons to ensure that children who are isolating or shielding don’t miss out on the learning they are entitled to. Catch up lessons offered to ensure that gaps grown during lockdown don’t grow to a chasm of underachievement in the future. Covering lessons taught by teachers who have been forced to self-isolate due to proximity to positive tests. School leaders having to learn the differences between common coughs and colds and symptoms of Covid in order to decide who can stay and who should isolate. School budgets being stretched ever thinner to pay for cleaning products and facemasks with no expectation of that money being replaced.

Which brings us to last week, and the refusal of the government to provide for the 3.4 million children living in poverty. Although it was good to see the issue having the national prominence it deserved, you shouldn’t think that schools were waiting for the government to step in. Schools have been raising money for the families hit hardest by the crisis since September. Staff at my school raised over £5000 through a virtual marathon but ours is in no way an isolated example. Up and down the country, food parcels have been bought and sent out; thousands of shopping bags being delivered to the children who need it most. And this week, whilst MP’s have discussed and prevaricated, schools have been getting ready. The last act of a long half term by many teachers will have been to deliver a bag of shopping that will be to prevent a week of hunger for a family.

So whilst Alec Shelbrooke, Phillip Davies and countless other Tory MPs will spend half term scraping the barrel of their conscience finding excuses for not supporting Marcus Rashford, school staff will keep going. We will continue to do whatever it takes, without judgement or complaint, to support the children who need it most. Not because we want to but because the last decade of Tory austerity and negligence means that we have to.

Tom Clements is a teacher from Leeds. He tweets at @labourtomclem

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