Face masks are a distraction from what really matters

Endless discussion of minor modifications to the guidance on face masks disguises the very real problems schools are facing, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus: Stretched school budgets are having a big impact on teacher recruitment

Following that haphazard prime ministerial announcement on Saturday about a new national lockdown, this was the week when schools and colleges were charged with the responsibility of keeping on keeping on. 

And, amid so much anxiety, so many recriminations, so much toxic discord, it is a responsibility that cannot be underestimated.

All of which translated in the media into a story about face coverings.

But however much interviewers and pundits tried to whip up synthetic controversy around some revised rules, the truth is that the new guidance on wearing masks differs only slightly from the old guidance. Thus the use of face masks is now mandatory in the communal areas of all secondary schools and colleges, whereas previously this applied only in parts of the country where Covid alert levels were “high” or “very high”.

Nevertheless, it was this audience-friendly topic that inevitably dominated the headlines, as a form of shorthand for how the new national lockdown might affect education.

Coronavirus: What schools and colleges are dealing with

Any frustration about the face-covering focus is because of the way it masks (sorry) some bigger stories about what schools and colleges are currently dealing with.

The most pressing issue for most leaders and governors is the pandemic-related financial cost, which their institutions are incurring at such an alarming rate.

It is bad enough that the government refuses to reimburse them for the safety measures that are necessary to minimise the risk of Covid infections. That is, the enhanced cleaning schedules, industrial quantities of hand sanitiser and all the rest.

But even this is overshadowed by the looming disaster of an increasingly eye-watering bill for hiring supply staff to cover for teachers who have to self-isolate in line with Covid protocols. This situation will only worsen because clinically extremely vulnerable staff have been advised to remain at home and not come into work during the national lockdown.

That is unquestionably the right decision in light of the increased risk posed by rising Covid rates. However, it means that there will be even more staff missing from school.

No magic money tree

Even before this new guidance, we have heard from schools that are spending £6,000 per week or more on supply cover. This is clearly unsustainable on budgets that are already tight.

The danger is that schools will not be able to afford these costs, or that they are unable to secure sufficient supply staff quickly enough to cover for absences. This could result in classes having to be sent home, and, in extreme situations, the closure of whole schools if staffing levels fall below a level where it is safe to remain open. 

The government should not underestimate the potential for this to happen. It is a real risk if rising Covid rates lead to more staff having to self-isolate. That is obviously the last thing the government wants, having trumpeted so much about the importance of keeping schools open.

But never mind what the government wants, it is also the last thing that schools, parents and communities want to happen – which, frankly, is far more important.

The government also seems unable to join up the dots between the reality of these huge costs and their impact on educational provision. There is, as austerity-era ministers used to like to say, no magic money tree. School and college budgets are finite, and when they have to pay out huge sums for supply staff and cleaning schedules, there is, by definition, less money available to spend on teaching and learning

And so we are hearing that funds earmarked for student support and targeted catchup-up sessions are having to be diverted to burgeoning supply budgets.

Hollow rhetoric and cheap talk

All of this makes the government’s rhetoric about prioritising education in the national lockdown sound very hollow. Talk is cheap. A bit of sub-Churchillian bluster from the prime minister doesn’t pay the bills. 

Similarly, there’s the education secretary’s comment in his blog this week: “When it comes to our children, there really is nothing we wouldn’t do to make sure they get the education they deserve.” 

The “really” in that sentence is the key word. And many leaders will reply with their own baffled, “Really?”  Because it’s surely now time to translate rhetoric into reality, inaction into purpose, delay into decisiveness. 

Delivering an education service to millions of children in the middle of a pandemic comes with real and mounting costs attached.

If the government is serious about supporting schools and colleges at this most challenging of times, about genuinely putting children first, then it needs to put its money where its mouth is – whether that mouth is beneath a face mask or not.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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