'The Inset plan is ham-fisted, tone deaf and demeaning'

The DfE hit a squalid new low by announcing that it would give staff a break with an Inset day, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus and schools: The government plan for an Inset day on 18 December to 'give staff a break' is demeaning, says Geoff Barton

The actor David Niven once said of fellow actor Errol Flynn: “You always knew precisely where you stood with him – because he always let you down.”

And so it is with this government. It is, I suppose, at least consistent. It always lets us down.

In a year when it appeared that relations with the teaching profession couldn’t get much worse, this week’s announcement about “granting” schools an Inset day on the last Friday of term “to give staff a proper break” achieved a squalid new low.

There is so much that is ham-fisted, tone-deaf and generally demeaning about this incident that it is hard to know where to begin.

Coronavirus: The exact opposite of a Christmas break

To start with, there is the assertion itself, courtesy of schools minister Nick Gibb in addressing the House of Commons Education Select Committee, that the object of the exercise was to make sure that staff could “have a proper break over Christmas”.

It was presented in the hushed tones of the Queen divvying out Maundy money to the deserving poor. Except that the minister’s sentiment was far less noble and far more patronising.

Because, in reality, the exact opposite of this “extra holiday” narrative is the actual case. 

What the government has announced is that schools are expected to carry out contact tracing for six days after the final day of teaching this term. Blink and you’ll miss it, but the tiny flexibility that has been dragged out of the government by ASCL and other education organisations is that, by using an Inset day on Friday 18 December, this period might start a day earlier.

In other words, school staff will be required to do any contact tracing that is necessary through to Wednesday 23 December, rather than also on Christmas Eve. Such is the government’s profound festive benevolence.

All of this comes after a year in which many senior leaders have not had a break at all since the pandemic began in March, and in which they have been hanging on to the elusive hope of some respite at Christmas after a desperately challenging term for all their staff.

The Inset day plan provoked an outpouring of anger

Seldom, in fact, have we at ASCL seen such a visceral outpouring of anger, anxiety and frustration as in the many emails we received from school leaders in the 24 hours after this cack-handed pronouncement about Inset days.

Many leaders made the point that such days were carefully planned professional-development programmes, rather than something that could be neatly bolted on to the end of term with so little time and planning. 

And then there is the curious business about how all of this squares with the supposed autonomy of schools to make their own operational decisions. 

The government’s bullish mantra about schools having to stay fully open in the last week of term has ended up in a situation where it has been left micromanaging the movement of Inset days – something that would normally, and rightly, be at the behest of leaders and their governors. 

It really didn’t need to be like this. If the government had listened to our repeated entreaties over the past few weeks, and allowed schools the flexibility to move to remote education, all of this could have been avoided. 

Then the end of term could have been managed in a more orderly manner, and everybody would have been able to look forward to a Christmas holiday free of contact tracing, and without potentially having to tell families on Christmas Eve that they need to self-isolate.

Customary muddle and frustration

Instead, we have the customary muddle and frustration that has accompanied every stage of the pandemic in relation to education – from the bodged plan for phased reopening in the summer, to the results fiasco, to the gaps in public health advice that schools were faithfully promised would be on tap during the autumn term.

To the wider public, the row about an Inset day at the end of term will seem arcane, not least because some headlines have focused on schools being able to close a day early for Christmas, rather than schools having to work through much of Christmas week. 

I suppose conspiracy theorists may view this as a clever piece of PR on the government’s part – that this is all about feckless teachers trying to grab another day of holiday. But, to those in the profession, such accusations will simply feel like the final straw at the end of a long and gruelling term. 

The one crumb of comfort perhaps is that the government can surely – surely – not make such a cack-handed mess of education policy in 2021. Can it? 

Niven also once said: “Don't take anything too seriously; it'll all work out in the end.” Let’s just hope he was right about that.

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

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