We mustn’t waste the opportunity Covid-19 has given us
The virus and the subsequent mismanagement of the situation by the government have been tough on schools. But respect and goodwill towards the profession has never been higher – and we can’t let it be squandered
There’s a scene in the latest season of US show This Is Us in which one of the characters appears in court after throwing a chair through the window of a building. He is asked by the judge if he feels remorse and, to everyone’s surprise, he says no.
There’s a long pause before he proceeds to explain and to list all the good things that have happened in his life after that act of vandalism.
Schools and teachers have faced something similar – although their woes have been caused by things thrown at, rather than by, them. A pandemic, then subsequent mismanagement by government, has wreaked havoc in education. But out of this terrible situation some good has emerged – public respect and support for the teaching profession has swelled to levels that have not been seen in years.
But it all hangs delicately in the balance.
While most teachers are doing amazing things, not all are providing the level of education that some parents believe should be the standard. There may be good reasons for that in some contexts, but to pretend it is not happening is unhelpful to all: it allows the snarks to circle.
At the same time, the government appears to be doing its best to inflict lasting damage on the relationship between schools and parents. After seemingly endless guidance notes from the Department for Education around reopening primary schools up to all pupils this term, the education secretary abandoned the plans and instead dumped the problem on heads. Over to you, too hard for me, he effectively said, and unleashed the wrath of disgruntled and disappointed parents onto those leading our schools.
The government then exacerbated the problem: opening up retail and other businesses has meant the requests for key worker places has increased sharply. With the key worker list so broad, and with primaries told these children should take priority, some of the children without key worker parents who had already returned to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 are being told they now no longer have a place, just two short weeks after being back in class.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you start opening up business, you’re going to need the capacity in schools, too. But maybe it was a PR disaster the government decided it didn’t want to tackle itself.
The education secretary and his crew have thrown primary schools a bone, however. They have helpfully said heads can use secondary schools with room to spare to cope, so long as it doesn’t require any more funding or more staff. Thanks a bundle, mate.
Many secondary leaders have already offered to take in Year 6 children in bubbles to help out their primary colleagues. That would take the pressure off and help with transition. But for the government to mandate that would be far too sensible and feel like joined-up rather than knee-jerk thinking.
Unfortunately, the problems are likely to continue to stack up. Overzealous protection of the six-week summer holidays when everyone else is struggling or, worse still, as redundancies ramp up, would see public opinion turn quickly.
And then there’s results days in August. With no exams acting as a barrier between teachers and pupils, it’s all down to teacher assessment and calculated grades. If some do not get the results they want or expect, it will be teachers and heads bearing the brunt of their and their parents’ anger.
Teachers are widely supported now, but everyone needs to be careful, especially the teacher unions. For just as good can come from bad, sometimes the very best intentions can bring terrible consequences.
This article originally appeared in the 19 June 2020 issue under the headline “These clouds have silver linings – but the weather could still turn”