Today, to mark National Thank A Teacher Day, we should be doing more than just thanking the nation’s teachers: we should be listening to them, not demonising them.
The outbreak of covid-19 has upended almost every element of daily life, and the UK’s education system makes for no exception. On 20 March 2020, schools across the country closed their gates to all but the children of essential workers and those considered most vulnerable, in a bid to halt the spread of the deadly virus which has now claimed 35,341 lives in the UK.
Seven weeks into lockdown, in a somewhat shambolic address to the nation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out the government’s plan to reopen schools from 1 June ‘at the earliest’, starting with reception, year 1 and year 6 children. Since then, the government has been on a collision course with teachers, unions and local authorities, who demand the rollout of a nationwide testing and contact-tracing programme and the provision of sufficient PPE before schools reopen.
Just yesterday, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council became the first Conservative authority to say it will not reopen schools on 1 June, citing the need for more detailed risk assessments and stringent protective measures to be in place beforehand. Solihull joins Labour-controlled Calderdale and Bury Metropolitan Borough Councils, as well as Liverpool City Council and Hartlepool Borough Council.
There are, of course, solid reasons to encourage as many children as possible to return school before September. School closures have presented myriad challenges to children as well as to parents, who are valiantly juggling childcare with sustaining a busy work life.
It is also no secret that existing inequalities have been exacerbated during the lockdown, with the switch to digital learning in particular exposing a worrying disparity in digital penetration and access to technology in households across the country. A study published this week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed that less than half (47%) of children from the poorest fifth of families are being offered active help from schools, such as online teaching, compared to 82% of their privately educated counterparts.
Schools also play a pivotal role in caring for children beyond the walls of the classroom, offering childcare, food and other support mechanisms that substantiate the age-old proverb of it taking a village to raise a child. Importantly, for the most vulnerable children, schools offer refuge from potential harm.
Further, clinical evidence suggests children do not tend to become severely ill from covid-19. A recent study in Australia has also reported ‘limited’ transmission in primary and secondary schools.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that we are being told by the government that ‘we owe it to the children’ to open schools now. And make no mistake, ministers are right to treat the reopening of schools to more children as a priority. But their recent, aggressive campaign to paint the teachers and unions expressing concern over health and safety as ‘scaremongers’ is unfair and unwarranted.
Last week, former Education Secretary Michael Gove warned local authorities unsure about the premature reopening of schools: ‘If you really care about children, you’ll want them to be in schools. You will want them to be learning. You will want them to have new opportunities. So, look to your responsibilities.’
Newspapers have also weighed in to offer their slanderous and divisive critique of ‘militant’ unions, which are supposedly frustrating the efforts of ‘desperate’ teachers to return to the classroom. But this is in spite of a recent poll that found that a staggering 95% of teachers are concerned or anxious about the government’s plans for the wider reopening of schools, and completely ignores the fact that teaching unions are comprised of teachers. Moreover, the British Medical Association last week threw its support behind the unions it believes are ‘right to urge caution, prioritise testing and protect the vulnerable’.
But teachers have every right to be worried about health and safety. The UK death toll continues to rise, the rollout of a comprehensive testing and contact-tracing programme is being periodically pushed back and frontline health and social care workers are still waiting for adequate PPE, let alone workers in other sectors. Whilst they aren’t the experts on the virus – it appears no one is – teachers are experts on the potential and limits of schools and classrooms, as well as have the legal right to a safe working environment themselves.
Implementing social distancing measures amongst children who have not seen each other in over two months will be difficult, if not impossible. Travelling to and from schools to go to work or to drop off and pick up children will inflate numbers on commuter routes. Reopening schools without clearer government guidance could pose a serious risk to a sector that was already grappling with recruitment and retention issues before the virus struck.
It is clear that schools will have to reopen in the near future. But the truth is that they never really fully closed anyway. Teachers have been supporting frontline NHS and care workers throughout the crisis, opening their classrooms to teach the children of essential workers whilst providing online learning to children at home where possible. Others are even delivering food parcels to vulnerable and self-isolating families.
There is also no promise that reopening schools in the short term will help tackle existing education inequalities, which had, to tell the truth, already been widening thanks to cuts to education funding, rising child poverty and the enduring impact of austerity. Less than a third (29%) of parents in the poorest families have said they would send their children back to primary school given the choice, compared to 55% of the most affluent parents. Handing the choice to parents could also lead to a dangerous situation in which the government absolves itself from plugging inequality gaps, placing the blame instead squarely on the shoulders of the parents who choose not to send their children to school.
Teachers should feel able to raise their legitimate concerns. Their choice of profession, and continued commitment to teaching as retention rates spiral, show that they care more than many about our children’s education. They should not be attacked and branded as enemies of the people for being worried about the covid-19 recovery strategy of a government whose approval ratings are plummeting.
Moreover, on this year’s National Thank A Teacher Day, they should be recognised for their efforts to go above and beyond what is necessary in order to challenge, encourage and nurture their pupils to be the best that they can be. And even more so in times of national crisis.
The Whitehouse team are experts in education, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of educational institutions and organisations, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union. More information about our education policy experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.