The prime minister sounded an optimistic note tonight but it will take a lot more to alleviate our fears and begin to set things right, writes Mary Bousted
This is a crisis point for the nation, and a great deal of what got us here can’t simply be blamed on new strains of the virus.
The government has had 8 months to prepare for a renewed period of remote learning, but it has not used that time wisely or well. Laptops are still only materialising slowly. Teachers and leaders are still spending too long battling against confusing and changing guidance to spend the time they need to skill up for the job. Every announcement is still a needless exercise in brinkmanship. Announcements on re-opening this week are only the most recent example, but the plan to roll out mass testing in schools was only weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Gavin Williamson seems to have learned only to bury his head deeper in the sand – ignoring mounting evidence of COVID transmission in schools to education professionals and into pupils’ households. SAGE told ministers on 22 December that even a lockdown of the same severity as last Spring would not be enough to reduce the R rate below 1. It is incomprehensible that, armed with this information, the Prime Minister even yesterday continued to declare that schools were safe. These are not the words of a leader who is ‘following the science’.
Last March, schools became a political football and they’ve hardly stopped being kicked about since
But there are more than medical reasons for why this new lockdown can’t be a repeat of the first. As soon as that was announced last March, schools became a political football, and they’ve hardly stopped being kicked about since. This time, pupils must be made a priority and the teachers who know them best must be listened to.
For a start, the government must now – and quickly – fulfil its promise to provide laptops and internet access for all pupils so that they are able to access remote learning at home.
Second, much more must be done for vulnerable pupils. Government must ensure they are safe, have enough food, and are supported in maintaining their mental health.
On 10 June, the NEU wrote to Boris Johnson with its education recovery plan containing recommendations on all these important steps to promote children and young peoples’ health, wellbeing and education. We received no reply. We commend it to Boris again. For all the media portrayal of the union approach as contentious and oppositional, what we want is to work with the government to achieve much better outcomes for our nation’s children and young people in this period of lockdown.
Doing better must start with government accepting its responsibility for neglecting schools and colleges. Bringing pupils and staff back into crowded buildings with no social distancing, poor ventilation and no PPE has resulted in primary and secondary pupils being the two most infected age groups. Their ability, with the increased transmissibility of the new strains of the virus, to transmit Covid to their households and into their communities, and to adults in schools – teachers, support staff and leaders – has caused such fear in the school workforce. That fear is shared by young people themselves and by their families.
To begin to rectify that, government must now exercise and be seen to exercise what has been so sorely lacking: its duty of care to those who have worked so tirelessly and heroically to take care of the nation’s youth. Working with the profession to determine the best way back out of lockdown and to reopen schools safely for all is not only common sense, but now a political necessity.
No one wanted schools to be shut again. Teachers and leaders have been valiant in their efforts to be Covid-secure. And they will be again, but responsibility for this closure lies entirely with government. It has, again, allowed the spread of the virus to go out of control. Burying heads in the sand and refusing to listen to those on the front line is a big part of the story of how we got here.