Ministers mustn't take credit for teachers' ingenuity

There will be a huge temptation for government ministers to take the credit for a successful reopening of schools – and that would be grossly unfair on our heads and teachers, writes William Stewart
4th September 2020, 12:01am
Ministers Mustn't Take Credit For Teachers' Ingenuity
William Stewart


Ministers mustn't take credit for teachers' ingenuity

Be careful what you wish for. There was a time when school leaders hankered after greater autonomy.

Until the early 1990s, state school heads and governors did not even have the power to decide how to spend their own budgets. Today, their autonomy over finance, and so much more, is such a well-established part of our schools system (where it's not being hacked away by academy chains) that it's almost taken for granted.

But this liberty for schools is not a one-way street. It has a darker, difficult side that the pandemic has brought to the fore. Autonomy over budgets and staffing - and, for academies, the curriculum - doesn't just give heads the freedom to decide. It also gives ministers the freedom to say, "Well, that's a matter for headteachers," when something tricky comes along.

That has been the way with so many divisive issues this year. The Department for Education's U-turn over face masks, for example, took away the certainty of previous guidance and, in most cases, left it up to the discretion of heads to decide whether this controversial measure was necessary.

It was, in sporting terms, a "hospital pass" - a passing of the ball to a player in a position guaranteed to leave them facing a crunching tackle. In fact, school autonomy in 2020 has amounted to one huge hospital pass.

It was also left to schools to work out how to make remote learning work on a mass scale in March, with practically no notice. It is schools that have had to make sense of rushed, last-minute official Covid guidance - only to find that it has been changed, or withdrawn altogether, hours later.

It is schools that are being left carrying the can for any problems with this year's A-level and GCSE grades because government and Ofqual failed to find a moderation system that worked. And schools were left to bear the responsibility of deciding whether they could reopen in June after ministers made promises but failed to provide the practical help needed to make them reality.

It is school leaders and teachers who, with limited government guidance and no extra money, have been expected to succeed in the horrendously complicated task of opening schools safely this week. I have little doubt that their energy and dedication will ensure that, in most cases, things go as smoothly as they possibly can. They are committed to their pupils, they know the children have to be back, and they have made it happen as safely as possible. But that does not mean it has been easy.

The Tes school staff survey results released this week reveal just how worried teachers have been and just how little faith they have in the government's ability to keep them safe.

And what if things do go wrong? Do you imagine that ministers will hold their hands up, apologise and say, "We could have done more"? Do you think that is a likely response from the people ultimately responsible for the exams grading mess, who have stayed in their posts while their officials have walked?

It is that badly mishandled exams controversy that has made the political stakes over school reopenings higher than ever.

So, if we do get through the first week back at school largely unscathed - at the time of writing, it is still too early to say - there will be a huge temptation for ministers, so reluctant to take any blame, to push themselves forward to take the credit.

That would be grossly unfair. If school openings are a success then it will be down to the determination, ingenuity and courage of heads and their teachers who have done everything in their power to make this happen. And sadly, in so many ways, they will have achieved this not because of their government - but in spite of it.


This article originally appeared in the 4 September 2020 issue under the headline "Don't let ministers take credit for heads' and teachers' ingenuity"

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