We should be angry for our communities, not at them

25 Apr 2020, 5:00

More schools are being asked to be emergency responders in the Covid-19 crisis, but that’s been the norm at Woodside for too long, says Gerry Robinson

A member of staff made a welfare check on a student today. He discovered that the family was sleeping on the floor, so he bought them all mattresses. But it was like this before Covid-19 – the crisis has simply heightened our anxieties and the level of threat.

Woodside serves Haringey, one of London’s most deprived boroughs. Our children and families rely on us for far more than the delivery of the curriculum. Most have a profound understanding and direct experience of inequality. A significant number are looked-after children, on the child protection register and/or identified as being at risk – proportionately higher than most other schools, not just in London but in the UK. Most are entitled to pupil premium funding.

School closures here have been catastrophic in ways that go far beyond the loss of routines, face-to-face teaching and exam cancellations. Those are all important, but our students are grappling with issues far bigger than the shift in reality everyone else is dealing with: extreme poverty, deprivation, abuse, violence, hunger and fear on a level no one should experience.

Yet the messages are the same for them as everyone else – “we’re all in this together” and “everyone needs to play their part”. How desperately insulting to suggest this has ever been the case. Our children have long lived with the pre-existing condition of staggering deprivation.

Lockdown is terrifying for many and a torture for some

The predictable truth is slowly becoming more evident: lower-income households and vulnerable populations are bearing the brunt of Covid-19. Intensive care data shows that 35 per cent of critically ill patients are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds. People whose work is deemed to be ‘low-skilled’ and simultaneously “essential” are treated as disposable. Our students know this brutal fact all too well.

To combat this messaging – to encourage students to have aspirations and self-belief when everything around them tells them they are worthless – is a truly herculean task, to use an adjective the government is keen on at present.

Powerful voices are admonishing people for the rising death toll when all the evidence suggests that key decisions were taken too late – or not at all. Thirty thousand ventilators were meant to be procured; 30 were delivered. This is the situation our students have been living in their whole lives – trying to exist on a metaphorical single ventilator and being shamed, blamed and locked up for turning to gangs or other routes to survive.

And now they are being demonised for spending time in public spaces. Haringey faces acute challenges around overcrowded housing. Temporary bedsits and homelessness are the norm. Sleeping on the floor in a tiny flat with leaks and mould is the least of it. Domestic violence and safeguarding reports are rising daily. The consequences of lockdown are terrifying for many and a torture for some.

We have been shielding people from the indescribable cruelty of our students’ lives. The intersection of social work, mental health and child protection services that should exist between schools and external agencies has been eroded as those services have been decimated.

Schools have become a frontline service. Woodside runs a foodbank. None of us entered education to do that. We do it willingly, but we are not politicians or campaigners. We are teachers. We are a school. Our students ask us daily when they can come back, desperate to return to their “other home” where they learn, are inspired, have dreams, play and laugh. But also eat, be safe, receive counselling, support, clothes, shoes and a warm, nurturing environment. They beg us to tell them when it will be normal again.

Speaking on behalf of everyone at Woodside, we don’t want it to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t working. This crisis has revealed that there is plenty to be angry about, but children playing in the park is not one of them.

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