During this pandemic, we have reached many lows. With each one, it seems that the standing of teachers has sunk further.
This week, in the face of more radical and contradictory debate in Parliament and the media, I’ve reached an existential crisis.
On Tuesday’s edition of the BBC's Newsnight, it felt as if the line had finally been crossed. In the middle of a discussion about ending bubbles as a way of getting more children back into school, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was suddenly asked whether all teachers should be vaccinated. Then, on Wednesday morning, the question was repeated to shadow education secretary Kate Green.
Where did that question come from? I knew there were statistics from earlier this year showing that 15 per cent of frontline healthcare professionals were still unvaccinated, but I wasn’t aware of any statistics showing that a significant proportion of teachers were putting children at increased risk by refusing the vaccination. I was under the impression that teachers and their unions had been begging the government to give the profession priority in the jabs queue.
Covid and schools: Teachers unfairly criticised yet again
It was a particularly fraught question. In comparison with many other nations, we have a very young teaching profession, with an average age of 39 – mainly because, even prior to the pandemic, the workload had become unbearable.
Teachers under 30 (24.9 per cent of the workforce) have been right at the back of the vaccine queue, because they were perceived to be at lowest risk of developing serious symptoms requiring hospitalisation. Many will still be waiting eagerly for their second jab to buy their path to greater social freedoms and to protect the children they work with.
My own greatest fear throughout this pandemic has been that I will unknowingly pass on the coronavirus to other people and be the unwitting cause of their deaths. We all have friends and colleagues with young families and vulnerable partners. I know how devastating it would be for them in their turn to pass it on, or to become too ill to look after their dependents.
I believed that teachers were being altruistic in their desire to be vaccinated. In recent suggestions – for example, the suggestion on Newsnight this week that teachers were reluctant to be vaccinated and needed to be compelled to do so – the media have been setting up a straw teacher to criticise.
But, in the process, the standing of the profession has been reduced still further. For the media, it seems worth casting a further slur on the integrity of the teaching profession, ostensibly “to protect our children”.
Yesterday, as Parliament debated (in a very lacklustre session) the problems of children missing more school than ever, it seemed that the bubbles would finally be burst.
And, this morning, the news headlines tell us that schools have been operating too stringently: “Stop sending whole bubbles into isolation for one positive Covid test, schools told,” says The Telegraph.
A perplexing change of direction
It seems very strange that, two days ago, the media were all for compelling all teachers to be vaccinated, and that for a whole academic year schools have been operating a bubble system that has been widely accepted until now.
This change of direction seems all the more perplexing as the infection rate for the Delta variant is rising exponentially, with 26,068 new people with a confirmed positive test result reported on 30 June 2021. And between 24 June 2021 and 30 June 2021, 135,074 people had a confirmed positive test result. This shows an increase of 69.9 per cent compared with the previous seven days. Most of these cases are in schools.
Why are we being led to believe that teachers are being irresponsible about being vaccinated, and in the same couple of days we’re also told that heads have been overzealous in the mitigations they have set up?
Of course, the data that would lead the public to worry about rising infections in schools or the possible spread within communities, may not be collected or publicised for much longer. Then there will be no need for the education secretary to answer the inconvenient questions about why masks are no longer mandatory in classrooms or how to achieve better ventilation in the nation’s under-maintained schools, to stop infection spreading.
All this while fully vaccinated MPs sit masked and socially distanced in the airy chamber of the House of Commons.
It feels as if we are living in the Oceania of Orwell’s 1984, as we try to navigate our way through these meandering policies and pronouncements, that in TS Eliot’s words: “In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
As the events of this week have unfolded, I’ve moved from the angry question of “Who does the government think we are?” to the more existential question “Who do we think we are?”
I wonder how long we can sustain our moral and intellectual compass in this world of shifting and self-revising government justification, and what the consequences would be of just letting go.
Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)