In the six months or so since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the government’s handling of its impact on schools has become emblematic of its flawed, haphazard and, at times, bullying approach.
In May, Boris Johnson and his hapless education secretary, Gavin Williamson, tried to browbeat primary schools into reopening en masse the following month. Teachers pointed to an absence of proper preparation, resources and guidelines, and the government sulkily U-turned. It took the footballer Marcus Rashford to then persuade the prime minister to overturn the cruel policy of discontinuing free school meals during the summer holidays. Last week, after days of chaos and justified fury, the notorious exam algorithm that unfairly deprived teenagers of university places was first defended and then ditched. The resulting GCSE grade inflation has led to a sudden boom in the number of sixth formers, forcing some schools to recruit new staff at the last minute, in the worst possible circumstances. Government dithering, callousness and sheer incompetence have been making an inevitable crisis in education far worse for months.
Next week, as both primaries and secondaries prepare to reopen, is the trickiest moment of all. So it is unlikely that many teachers or parents will be reassured by the words of the former minister, Theresa Villiers, who declared this week that Mr Johnson “is gripping this”. In a statement on Monday, the prime minister said that he considered it a moral duty to get children safely back to school. On this there is universal agreement; as numerous teachers have attested, the Covid-19 hiatus threatens to have heartbreaking consequences for disadvantaged pupils in particular. But Johnsonian exhortation, important though it is for the prime minister’s political profile, is not much use when it comes to solving real-world dilemmas in a pandemic.
The potential for a school to play a role in community spread of the virus is clear, given the number of households it draws together. A succession of outbreaks in German schools and elsewhere suggests that there is still a lot we do not know about transmission of the infection in schools; the coming weeks are likely to be a matter of trial and error, as schools discover what is and isn’t working. Local test-and-trace capacity, vital to containing outbreaks, has improved but is still far from optimum. Establishing trust in the new systems and protocols, particularly in the case of local spikes, will therefore be fundamental to the successful reopening of schools. On that score, predictably, the government is not doing nearly enough.
A week from the start of a new term like no other, the National Education Union is right to want greater clarity and precision on the next steps, in the case of virus outbreaks in schools. It also remains unclear what happens when there is a lockdown in a school’s local area and what the decision-making process will be. Little has been done to set up helplines for educational settings, which could offer support and advice as problems inevitably emerge. A request for confidence-building on-demand testing for teachers and pupils was turned down by the schools minister, Nick Gibb. With typical blitheness, a government spokesman said on Monday that remote education would be provided for children forced to re-isolate at home. Yet last week it was reported that only one-third of disadvantaged children promised free laptops by Mr Williamson in April had received them.
At such a complex, fragile moment, confidence is the most precious of commodities. But the government is failing, again, to inspire it. Mr Johnson is right to say that there is a moral duty to get children safely back to school. But accomplishing that successfully will require engaging with and listening to teachers and parents, and giving them clear guidance. Sermonising from No 10 is all too easy.
Source: The Guardian