How many teachers decided to quit this term?

This government is profligate with money and with lives. But perhaps some lives matter more than others, says Yvonne Williams
15th December 2020, 1:15pm
Yvonne Williams


How many teachers decided to quit this term?
Teacher Packs Belongings Into Box

Can there be anything more morally and financially bankrupt than the government's directive to schools to remain open, enforced by the threat to seek a High Court injunction against any institution that migrates its teaching online before Christmas? 

The political and health row has escalated rapidly since the weekend, as leaders of Royal Greenwich Council, Islington and Waltham Forest directed their schools to move to virtual learning. 

The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has called for all London schools to close to prevent the virus spreading further. 

If the intention was to quell revolt in hard-pressed areas, then such intimidation has clearly not achieved its aim. Greenwich has become the first recipient of an injunction from the Department for Education, directing it to withdraw advice to schools to move to online learning and instructing the council to issue letters telling parents that schools will remain open until Friday. 

Meanwhile, school attendance is dropping like a stone in a number of areas. Teachers are drowning in antibacterial sprays and hand gel, trying to ward off infection in their classrooms, as headteachers struggle to keep schools open. Schools simply can't cope with the fallout, in a situation that is slipping out of their control.

Coronavirus: Depicting teachers as shirkers

No senior leader would ever willingly close classrooms on-site before term is ended. Headteachers are all too aware of the emotional needs of their pupils and the consequences for the most disadvantaged in their care.

While it was expedient to do so, the government was happy to see teachers portrayed as heroes. But now media comment is becoming increasingly hostile.

Funny how quickly teachers are depicted as shirkers when the government wants to keep schools open. 

The barrage of ill-informed copy (from commentators well-insulated from any risk of infection behind their computer screens in their home offices) is designed to demoralise teachers, to keep them compliant and alienate them from the public, should school leaders close before 18 December.

This time, though, the strategy might just have backfired, infuriating the profession to such an extent that heels will be dug in.

It's quality of learning time that matters - not quantity

At this point, those who direct the destinies of education communities need to make a more sober social and economic appraisal of the situation.

If time spent in school equated naturally to success in examinations, the independent schools, with their shorter terms, would not produce the high results they do. Many shut up shop last Friday. The (often privately educated) government and media should realise that it's the quality of learning time that matters, not the quantity.

Apart from the conscientious Year 11 and Year 13 cohorts, most pupils are beginning to wind down as the holiday approaches, no matter how much energy teachers inject into their class teaching. Surely the value of this last week of the longest term of the school year has to be questioned: why put more people at risk now, in a situation of diminishing returns? 

Many schools have been so disrupted this term that the quality of teaching has already been compromised. This isn't a reflection on the schools themselves but a product of their parlous situation. Stretched to the limit, with teachers and year groups having to self-isolate, how can schools provide the same standard of provision that has been possible in previous years? And how well can their pupils be served in comparison with others in schools relatively unaffected by infections?

Keeping teaching on-site is not a cost-efficient exercise. When I was self-isolating last week, I had a cover supervisor in my real classroom as I taught online. This equates to two professionals in one room at a time. 

In the short term, supply bills will go through the roof - as they have already in many schools

A good time to give up teaching

In the long and medium term, there will be other types of absence, of longer duration. Exhausted teachers will be more vulnerable to illness and some may be burned out already. Many will be asking themselves whether there is any point in carrying on if their health and wellbeing - as well as that of vulnerable members of their family - are constantly compromised. How many teachers will decide that this is a good time to give up teaching - vocation or not?

It beggars belief that a prime minister who has experienced the disease to the extent of hospitalisation should have so little compassion and foresight. It was a propaganda victory for Boris Johnson as the country held its breath, wished him and his fiancée well, and breathed a collective sigh of relief when he was released from hospital. But then perhaps some lives matter more than others?

Some teachers have gone on to develop more serious symptoms than the prime minister, and in some cases these have proved longer lasting or even fatal.

Schools do not need a government that is profligate with money and profligate with lives - a government which has consistently failed to deliver on its promises - to tell them what to do. 

As the integrity of headteachers, council leaders and multi-academy trust leaders is put on the line, they face a hard choice. How much are the lives in their care worth? They are forced to weigh up the conflicting priorities of children's mental health and wellbeing against that of their staff, who are more likely to fall seriously ill. 

An urgent public health issue has become a political struggle. The injunction served on Greenwich Council seems more a callous attempt to assert ministerial authority than a measured response to the health crisis as experienced in schools. It's a futile gesture to retain just a couple more days in school. 

And just in case we think the matter will end here, there is no reason to believe that schools will be any safer in January than they are now - possibly quite the opposite. Just look at America's post-Thanksgiving infection rates to see where our future - and the future of our schools - lies. 

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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