DfE risks a long, dark legacy by threatening schools

The bad blood created by the hardline stance on Covid school closures may not be easily put right, says William Stewart
16th December 2020, 5:00am
William Stewart


DfE risks a long, dark legacy by threatening schools

Coronavirus: The Dfe Risks A Long, Dark Legacy By Threatening Schools Over Covid Closures, Writes William Stewart

Geoff Barton is a self-confessed politician. He believes he has to be. 

If you want to be an effective as a leader of a headteachers' union, then careful behind-the-scenes lobbying may yield better results than shouting your mouth off from the sidelines.

And so Mr Barton has transformed himself from the outspoken head of yore to the measured general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

A leader restrained enough, for example, to give Ofsted's controversial latest school inspection framework a fair crack of the whip while colleagues in other unions screamed for it to go.

Then last night all that changed. The gloves came off in education secretary Gavin Williamson's battle to force schools to stay open this week, and Mr Barton cracked.

News: DfE orders council to back down and keep schools open

Comment: 'There will be a reckoning for DfE's bully-boy tactics'

Related: Close schools early, says third London council

His comments came as the department indicated that it was willing to take legal action to force Greenwich council to withdraw its request for its schools to close doors for Christmas over Covid concerns. 

Coronavirus: The DfE's 'bully boy tactics'

The heads' leader has had enough of the DfE's "bully boy tactics" and is warning it that "there will be a reckoning"

There have been signs that Mr Barton's patience has been wearing thin lately as he and others have become steadily more outspoken and exasperated by the department's handling of the coronavirus crisis. 

But last night's explosion of frustration at the DfE's "disgraceful" position was something else. It is a measure of just how far the department has pushed the teaching profession with its dogmatic insistence that schools must stay open, no matter how high coronavirus infections are - that education's Mr Measured has had enough.

This change may provide some unpleasant warning signs of what might lie ahead for our schools system. The coronavirus will undoubtedly leave behind a long-lasting legacy. Some of it might be good - enforced use of technology can only add to teachers' repertoire in the long term. 

But it also looks as if there will be a darker side with some unpleasant scars left on the teaching profession by Covid-19. 

The breakdown of trust with teachers

And they are not just about the extra hours worked, the stress, the loneliness and the sheer demand of teaching during a pandemic. There are other scars that are not the result of the coronavirus, but of the way it has been handled - unnecessary scars.

They are about the huge breakdown of trust that has occurred because of the way the DfE has dealt with the coronavirus, often seeming to make a bad situation even worse. 

This has been building for a while, from months of over-promising and under-delivering on everything from free school meal vouchers, to laptops and extra tutoring, and from endless last-minute changes to guidance. 

But the government's inflexible and threatening position on schools that want to close to save lives is pushing teachers over the edge. It is driving a wedge of mistrust and antipathy between the DfE and teachers, and it is creating damage that may be difficult to repair in the long term. 

More about politics than education

What seems to make this worse is that it increasingly feels more about politics than education. Many schools have been quietly closing by default anyway - they have had to because they haven't got the staff.

There seems to be only one reason for conducting such a high-profile fight against the inevitable when whole councils get involved and closures make the news - a virility test to save ministerial face. 

Of course, if the pundits are to be believed, Mr Williamson may not remain at the DfE beyond the next reshuffle anyway. And that makes his stance feel even more pointless.

But a new face at the top may not be enough to make the bad blood between teachers and the DfE go away when all of this is over.

As Mr Barton has pointed out, it is regional schools commissioners who are being expected to enforce the DfE's hardline stance on school closures. They are likely to be around for much longer than Mr Williamson, and, in education, relationships do matter.

As Mr Barton says, "this will have consequences".

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