Teachers are being blamed for the government's failings

Heads and teachers have been accused of obstructing plans for a full return to school in September. This could have been avoided if there had been a proper government strategy in place, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Several fingers, pointing at an unseen person

“Summer afternoon,” said the writer Henry James, “summer afternoon: the two most beautiful words in the English language.”

And, this year of all years, as we grind painfully towards the end of an academic year like no other, teachers and leaders will be craving a break, looking forward to a few rejuvenating summer afternoons before another academic year, possibly like no other, cranks into gear.

It’s time, surely, for some respite. As one headteacher wrote to me recently: “I am weary of being anxious and I am weary of being weary.”

But, if you’re looking forward to this year’s summer break, stay alert. There are quite a few vocal commentators out there in the world of politics and the media who think you should be giving up your summer holiday to run all manner of catch-up programmes for children whose education has been disrupted. 

No matter that there is no actual government plan to do this, and none has ever been put forward or suggested. Or that, short of making it compulsory for pupils to attend school in the summer holidays, it wouldn’t work in any case, because lots of the children you most wanted to reach wouldn’t turn up. Or that everybody is surely entitled to some sort of break at some point – including the families of the children we teach.

Wagging a scornful finger

To the summer-school enthusiasts, this is mere detail, a sign that teachers are once again dragging their feet. Nor is it simply the matter of the holidays that has attracted the disapproving attention of those who are keen to wag a scornful finger in the direction of the teaching profession.

We stand accused of falling down on the job of ensuring that our pupils are learning from home. The often-quoted statistic is that 2.3 million children have done barely any school work during lockdown. This was described by one MP this week as “close to being a national education disaster”.

You may be bewildered by this statistic when you have spent the past few months setting work, marking it, providing feedback, trying to manage various software platforms and endeavouring to engage with pupils who have gone off-piste. I am also puzzled, as I have yet to speak to or hear of anyone who hasn’t been setting work for their pupils.

It may be worth looking a little bit more closely at that statistic, then. For a start, the number of children in the actual study is nowhere near 2.3 million. In fact, it covers 4,559 children from households throughout the UK. The data was collected in the last two weeks of April, from an online survey, and it found that one-fifth of pupils did no schoolwork at home, or less than an hour a day. 

The figure of 2.3 million children comes from applying this finding to the total population. Whether or not this is really the case at that scale cannot be proved or disproved.

The findings are also based on responses from parents and other household members, so it is possible that schools may have a different view of how much work was set. 

Battering the teaching profession over the head

I am not saying this to undermine the study. It is a legitimate piece of academic research by well-respected bodies. I am merely attempting to provide some context. 

Like much research, it is a starting point for further investigation and discussion. It should certainly concern us, and we need to understand more about the barriers to remote learning, particularly as we are likely to be using it again with self-isolating pupils, and during any future coronavirus lockdowns. 

But it is one study at one point in time, and it shouldn’t be overinterpreted or used to batter the teaching profession over the head. 

As I say, my experience is that schools and colleges threw themselves into the task of providing remote education with tremendous speed and from a standing start. It was never going to be perfect, but neither is it a “national education disaster”.

I think we will find, when all children return to schools, that many are much more resilient and have fared better with remote education than the a catastrophised perception presented as fact.

There will be a big challenge to identify learning gaps and tailor support for those pupils who have fallen behind, and in particular to prepare them for GCSEs and A levels, after so much recent – and probably ongoing – disruption. 

But this will entail the nitty-gritty detailed work that our profession is very good at doing. And many parents are saying that they appreciate more than ever the skills of assessing, questioning and explaining that are the hallmarks of the teacher’s repertoire.

Waiting on the government

That brings us, inevitably, to that other bone of contention: the full return to school. We’ve been accused of dragging our heels over that too, when, in fact, we have mainly been waiting on the government at various points to divulge its plans (usually briefed to the media first), so that we can implement them. 

It is true that we have asked for the scientific basis for decisions, asked for clarification over muddled bits of guidance, and suggested it wouldn’t be possible to reopen primary schools to all pupils in the summer term while limiting class sizes to 15, which the government (eventually) conceded.

But those don’t seem like unreasonable questions and points. And it certainly hasn’t been the teaching profession that has made such a hash of things.

From where I stand, talking to our members each day, listening to their concerns and feedback, I have seen a profession that has worked with great diligence and commitment. I have seen staff teams pulling together with a sense of mission and moral purpose to try to do the very best for their pupils. 

I have seen leaders and teachers across the country working tirelessly to do the right thing at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. 

The great shame is that the unfair characterisation of the teaching profession, which has taken hold in some quarters, could have been averted if there had been some semblance of government strategy. 

Imagine how different things might have been if there had been a collaborative approach, in which government had worked with the profession on a joint plan for educational recovery, with clarity about the path ahead, and a sense of singing from the same proverbial hymn sheet.

That time has now gone, but we must surely learn lessons for the future. 

In the meantime, the increase in interest from members of the wider public now wishing to become teachers tells us something important about ourselves, and gives us the opportunity to tell a better story about what teachers do, the skills they have, the lives they can change for good.

All of which gives plenty to reflect on when you finally arrive at one of Henry James’s beautiful summer afternoons.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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