Keyboard commentators should think before they type

1 May 2020, 10:39

Nobody’s asking anyone to clap for teachers but their incredible efforts to reinvent school deserve better than uninformed public criticism, writes Paul Whiteman

I am at my desk a bit earlier than normal today; it is not quite light and in the background the farming programme has just started on radio 4. I can take some small comfort that I am accompanied by many school leaders and teachers across the country. Many will already be hard at it, facing another day of toil and uncertainty whilst steeling themselves against unwarranted criticism.

Yesterday, Lord Andrew Adonis tweeted to say he’d written to Ofsted chief, Amanda Spielman, concerned that schools are not providing enough online learning. NAHT members, who were just recovering from Sir Michael Wilshaw’s Newsnight suggestion that schools should work evenings and weekends to ‘catch up’ – not to mention the recent Telegraph article suggesting our profession lacks courage – were stung. The last thing they need is blame and criticism.

Teachers have effectively rebuilt our education system from scratch in a matter of weeks in response to a crisis deeper than has been experienced for generations. They have moved mountains in mere moments to support children, their families and their communities. They have remained open for the most vulnerable children and for children of key workers. For those not at school, they have provided a rich mix of support and materials, both online and off.

And providing material is not the whole game. Getting children to interact at a distance is a new discipline. Teaching is hard enough when a child is with you (as may parents have discovered), but it’s a whole other order of complexity when they are not. A 30 per cent take up of online material in the first five weeks of lockdown should be celebrated, not derided. Let’s build on that success, not jump to suggestions that it is failing.

Their care and commitment has not been celebrated

Not that technology alone is the answer in any case, but when the government programme to provide devices and dongles to the poorest finally launches, take up will increase. The facts are that following a decade of austerity there are more children in poverty than ever before and the closure of the disadvantage gap was already slowing, and neither was caused by the teaching profession.

Let’s not pretend that what went before gave us a solid basis for such successful innovation in the face of a crisis. Schools are underfunded, a growing recruitment and retention crisis has meant that we do not have enough teachers in the right places and professionals were already responding to a new inspection framework. School resilience was at a low ebb going into the crisis, and their response to lockdown is worthy of the highest praise.

About 25 per cent of school staff are unable to work due to illness, isolation and shielding. Most wish they were in the fight. The remaining workforce, when not teaching in school or from home, spends its time feeding children in the face of a failed Free School Meals voucher system and checking up on children they are concerned about. Yet their care and commitment to the most vulnerable, and their whole communities has not been celebrated. Not that they’re asking for that, but to snipe at them from the sidelines is unfathomable.

The NAHT will take its place in the discussion at the DfE today about how schools might extend provision when the medical advice supports it. Over 7,500 NAHT members have replied to our consultation about this in just 24 hours and their voice needs to be heard. Overwhelmingly, their responses demonstrate a commitment to keeping children, families and staff safe, together with a desire to find practical solutions to deliver the very best education possible.

Nobody should be questioning the teaching profession’s commitment.

The irony of this article is not lost on me, but this keyboard commentator has thought long before typing. All night, in fact. My appeal to Lord Adonis and anyone else thinking of offering a public opinion is simple: do not take your Covid frustrations out on schools.

They are a vital part of the solution; they are certainly not the problem.

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  1. Derek Moss

    Thank you for pointing out the facts. I work as a governor with 5 heads and I can see the stress in their eyes and hear it in their voices when we talk. Headteachers and their stffs have worked tirelessly over the past 6/7 weeks to get to grips with this situation and nobody is applauding them. They are on the frontline as nobody knows yet if children are the carriers. I will certainly be recommending mine for public commendation when this is all over.

  2. Judith Hicks

    Completely agree with you Paul. Our schools are doing their best in very difficult circumstances. Head Teachers need our support not criticism from those who should know better. Why should schools be criticised at a time when the NHS is being celebrated?

  3. Lawrence Rouse

    Dear Paul,
    Just to say thank you for your response to the few who still feel the need to inappropriately strike at hard working professionals eager to support children and parents.
    Our profession has improved and will continue to do so despite these individuals. My only hope is that there will be a time for a full inquiry into Ofsted and these commentators in the future. We should be fighting together, not making threats in the midst of this pandemic.

  4. lorraine

    Thank you. I was so upset by that stupid man-Adonis. My friend is thinking about handing in her notice and the destruction of teacher morale is awful. My HT warned us, wrongly, that we would not be paid if we did not turn up to work on 23rd March!
    So just thank you

  5. Alice

    Once again I find myself so grateful to be in the NAHT – a voice of reason- your voice – articulating how so many of us feel.
    Keep up the good work!

  6. Craig Williams

    Hi Paul

    Thank you to you and the NAHT team for keeping all members well-informed of discussions and questions that require member response.

    I get highly frustrated with people who find schools and teachers easy targets to point the finger at or challenge our professionalism. Interesting how they have so many opinions about moving forward, none of which are of any use or realistic.

    Keep up the great work.

    Craig Williams

  7. Angela Buhl-Nielsen

    Dear Paul,
    Thank you!
    A response to the criticism was needed and you have done full justice to it while remaining courteous; this is no mean feat!

  8. Debbie Doherty

    The content of the regular updates and feedback from the NAHT leading up to and since Lockdown have provided the information and support I have needed to manage my school during this crisis. Ahead of making any major decisions, I await or seek the brilliant advice from the union of which I am proud to be a member. Thank you for your ongoing support and advice.

  9. Trixie kesge

    How well the head teacher started by praising the efforts and commitment of teachers during this crisis. Worthy praise indeed but what a shame he then used it as a forum to grouse about underfunding etc and a ‘failed school meals system’ etc. The complaining and indeed veiled criticism of the government rather detracted from what started as a very apt observation. Teachers do deserve our thanks and praise and should not be regarded as child minders, meal providers and everything else parents don’t want to do

  10. Rebecca

    Thank you for your support, Paul. As teachers and school leaders, we have not worked harder than over the past few weeks. Holidays have been sacrificed gladly to support the cause. I was in school on Good Friday and Easter Monday. We haven’t had a day off in months, and are unlikely to be able to recoup this time as other professions will be able to. A lot of our work is hidden from the people we work for, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen – far from it. Working remotely from our students has created an ever-burgeoning workload using strategies and techniques that we have had to learn on the job – working 16-hour days will not be sustainable for much longer. I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved and our attitude. We are not asking for applause, there are others who do deserve it but do not belittle the incredible effort the teaching profession has undertaken.

  11. Holly Pearce

    this article voiced the opinion of so many. as a sixth form student I couldn’t be be more grateful for what my school does and the effort they put in as are so many students. the teaching profession shouldn’t be questioned at a time like this it should be valued and praised.

  12. Claire

    Thank you Paul for penning your response… far more articulate than this one which I penned a few days ago when emotions were high and staff morale very low.

    ‘Contrary to the perception of a naive minority of the public, schools are NOT closed to all children. The vast majority of schools remain open to ensure the children of critical workers and vulnerable children can still be cared for during the pandemic. Even when their own school has closed, the staff are almost always working shifts in a ‘hub’ school to ensure there is provision for the wider community. School staff are not ‘just’ staying home. Many are working shifts 7:30am to 6pm (and beyond) to provide extended childcare in schools so that our NHS staff and other workers critical to our fight against COVID-19 can go to work knowing their child is well cared for. Many school staff at all levels worked over Easter providing childcare provision as volunteers because it was the right thing to do for our children and families as we work together to overcome COVID-19. Others are planning and sharing learning opportunities via online platforms. These learning opportunities are well thought out and matched to the needs of cohorts… not simply uploading ‘worksheets’ as some of the uninformed may think (that’s so 1980s and things have moved on somewhat since their own school days… who’d have thought eh!?)

    Many school staff are checking in on vulnerable families by telephone and delivering food parcels each week. School staff are working differently in very difficult times. (If ‘they’ think school staffing only consists of ‘teachers’ then I guess ‘they’ also think only doctors and nurses work in hospitals!) School staff don’t have any PPE and are regularly caring for the children of our frontline staff; social distancing is pretty much impossible with our youngest children or those who have additional needs.

    School leaders are still needing to plan and set budgets for 20/21, conduct essential meetings for looked after children, plan for children with additional needs, review EHCPs, manage property (yeah, do ‘they’ know that we manage and maintain our buildings too and continue to maintain health & safety checks…they don’t want a child contracting Legionnaires during this pandemic do they?). We are managing staff and complex HR issues too made more challenging because of the pandemic. All the usual work has to be done only now there is a new layer of work too; responding to vague government directions at short or no notice, always doing our very best in challenging circumstances. Getting up at 2.30am to login to the Edenred Free School Meals voucher site so that our families don’t go without food vouchers as we are worried about them (because the site wasn’t prepared for the volume of need despite the government being able to calculate exactly how many children are eligible for vouchers) and getting onto the site in ‘usual working hours’ is virtually impossible!

    The current social distancing also means that many schools will struggle to make teacher appointments for September given that we are not currently able to conduct traditional recruitment processes. This means we have to work in a different way and it may prove more difficult to confidently secure quality teachers for our classes for September because we can’t see teachers teach beforehand, can’t give them a tour of our schools so they can decide if they want to work with us, but because of our refusal to compromise on getting the very best for our children, we are working hard to design new rigorous recruitment processes.

    I have school staff who cannot come into school because they are themselves vulnerable but they are working non-stop from home (and would love to be able to come into work and have a degree of normality). I have staff who are the main carer for elderly parents and they are balancing their time between supporting their self-isolating parents’ increased needs all whilst trying to do their own work. I have staff who have children at home who need them for emotional support as well as academic support, staff who are isolating because someone in their household has symptoms and they are understandably worried, staff who are very ill or hospitalised so cannot work, staff who have partners who have no work and suddenly no income and like many others are worried. Whatever profession a person is in, everyone’s situation is unique right now; we are not all in the same boat but we are all in the same storm. Being in the teaching profession does not make us exempt from all of the pressures many other people are facing right now. We don’t want praise or clapping, we are doing our job and what we believe is right but what we don’t want right now are naive comments from public figures!’

  13. Janet Downs

    I’ve just read Adonis’s twitter feed. It includes tweets ‘absolutely’ agreeing with him: schools were taxpayer-funded, therefore they should provide on-line teaching.
    Teachers have been a punchbag for years. Remember the sneer, ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach’. I heard that over 40 years ago.
    Adonis has been part of this denigration. He was dubbed ‘Tony Zoffis’ by the late Ted Wragg. ‘Who is sending out this twaddle to schools?’ Wragg asked. ‘Tony’s Office’ was the reply. Adonis was the one in charge.
    This undermining of state teachers rose under Gove to such an extent he became ‘toxic’ within most of the profession.
    Imagine the anger if some big mouth smugly tweeted how hospital trusts and GP’s practices should be downgraded if they didn’t offer a full, internet-based service during this crisis. But schools? Yes, it’s OK to give them a kicking.

    • G Miles

      To my mind, one of the most vexing and unexplored aspects of this debate is arguably whether MPs themselves have any experience of the State system- as pupils and/or as parents of learners. The very fact that Education, Health & Social Services comprise a ritual triumvirate of political footballs perhaps at the very least suggests a need for visible authenticity and integrity in decision making and developmental processe- alongside revisiting the nature and purpose of the Normal Distribution Curve in terms of ‘expectations’… and the money wasted on training teachers who are perhaps too young and inexperienced to survive their journey.


  14. Mike O'Reilly

    Speaking as a retired headteacher, a school governor and on behalf of two teacher daughters.
    The work oi schools and the teaching profession has been absolutely astonishing during this pandemic. Everything had to be done at such speed while schools were still open and teachers were still teaching.
    I am constantly reminding people schools are open teaching the children of key workers, looking after their own classes virtually while teaching and caring for their own children at home also!
    My daughter was terribly upset and angry about this twitter outburst after a very busy week looking after all these children – especially those who are most vulnerable. Does Adonis realise who is making sure these children are getting fed too.
    All of this has been done while schools have been starved of funds and the people needed to make it work.
    Please remember how you felt, when this is all over.
    Thanks Paul for your support of the profession and your rebuff to those who have no idea of what teachers and schools are doing in this crisis.

  15. Lifelong learner

    Lord Adonis has an exceedingly narrow view shaped by his privileged status. My daughter works in an inner city school where the normal school concerns are to provide a safe refuge from physical and psychological harm and fill empty bellies so the children can concentrate. Curriculum learning is the tip of the iceberg. Providing online learning doesn’t help children who have lost their main meal (sometimes their only meal) of the day; those who share limited space with too many people; whose lives revolve around fear, now exaggerated by confinement. Online learning isn’t accessible to those without laptops or sharing with the rest of the family and learning is hampered by lack of support when the parent /wage earner is furloughed and worried how to pay bills. Normally teachers in these inner city schools provide amazing support for these children, they won’t have stopped their efforts but these are unprecedented times and to measure success by completed online homework is a farce. To aim criticism for the perceived short comings at teachers is destructive. They deserve applause every week for the novel ways they have found to deliver packed lunches and pastoral care and for connecting with their pupils safely within social distancing measures. Lord Adonis risks alienating these wonderful people who are already planning how to manage the return to school, to minimise negative and possibly traumatic experiences whilst in lockdown and to support the neediest of children face the future with a positive attitude. His comments are exceedingly damaging to the staff that will do all this and then resume delivery of their lesson plans.

  16. Stephen Rafferty

    As a headteacher in NI, I fear that we as schools, teachers, assistants etc will never get the credit we deserve. There will always be the ‘Sure look at the holidays you get’ line thrown at us. We have approx. 460 children in school, and I would guess approx. 70%+ are engaging in online learning – well above the 30% mentioned. But we will still be criticised. Teacher still worry and panic about the 30% – I see it first hand. We are open every day for Key Worker children – I am in school every day and staff are in on a rota basis, we do not expect a clap – but we expect some respect. Parents now see the job we do – it may change public perception, it may not. But when those in power continue to demean and deride the job we do both in normal circumstances and in these times, then there will be little, if any, change in the public perception of “Aye, sure look at the holidays you get.”

  17. Paul Lowe

    Before Lord Adonis starts to talk about others “catching up” he should perhaps look at his own house. He is currently the proud sole shareholder and director of a company that has not filed its accounts and are overdue


    Last tweet I saw before above was that he was looking for people to play Risk against. I guess when you are a Lord the laws you approve are for the masses and not your Lordships.

  18. Claire McKenzie

    As a former headteacher and currently working as a LA associate adviser supporting a number of local schools, I agree with everything you say and can assure Lord Adonis that teachers and headteachers are working hard, night and day, during term time and holidays, in unsafe conditions and without PPE, to keep children as safe as possible and provide educational activities to keep their children learning. They are not only trying to distant teach, they are also trying to look after their health and well-being – which is quite a challenge from a distance. I also know of children – despite daily online work being provided by the school – not doing any school work at home because their parents (many of whom are trying to work from home and are struggling to juggle everything) are not insisting that they do so.
    Support, understanding and a recognition of the very difficult situations teachers are working in would be far more productive than this sort of unwarranted criticism from an ill-informed and privileged Lord. Perhaps Adonis would benefit from the strategy we use in schools with children who have said unkind things: take time out to think about what he has said and, when he’s ready, to apologise.

  19. June Dadswell

    I get very angry about the negative comments about teachers.I have friends who say teachers should not be paid while they are not in school.My daughter,who is a secondary school teacher has had no holidays or weekends.She has come up with very innovative ways to teach her classes and is appreciated by parents and pupils. She has telephoned all her tutees and vulnerable pupils at her own expense.Her school is open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children and delivers lunches to those who need them as the government scheme has not worked efficiently.The school sourced laptops and i pads from local businesses from the beginning.The present circumstances are not ideal but please keep our teachers safe and appreciate what they do.