Open letter: 'Dear Mr Williamson, I have some concerns'

In an open letter to the education secretary, primary teacher Emily Gazzard lays out her many – many – concerns with the way teachers have been treated this year

Emily Gazzard

A woman, writing with pen at a desk, with a laptop next to her

Dear Mr Williamson,

I am an assistant headteacher at a large primary school, and I wanted to share with you some concerns about what is happening in schools at the moment, and to see if you are able to help. 

Communication with the education sector 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, communication with the education sector has been confusing and inconsistent, and documents have been released at unhelpful times (eg, at 9pm at the beginning of a bank holiday weekend). 

We have all expended great efforts to keep up with developments from the Department for Education, and this has at times proved to be almost a full-time job. Announcements from central government have been made, and then teachers have been put in the situation where we have been creating our own protocols and systems, only for the DfE to then release guidance the day before a change (eg, children returning on the 1 June). 

The current confusion around key stage 2 Sats, GCSEs and A levels is another example of this. Your department had promised to share with teachers the expectations and plans for the exams by the end of November. Unfortunately, this deadline has not been met, and schools are still waiting to hear from you. 

Testing

When schools reopened fully in September, there was a huge increase in the number of tests needed. This, according to the government, was a surprise, and something that hadn’t been factored into plans for September.

In those early weeks, we had pupils who were sometimes at home for 10 days, waiting to get a test and then to receive the results. We also had to cover teachers who were in a similar situation.

The situation now is not much better, with results sometimes taking a week to come back. This means that contacts who should be isolating are still coming into school every day. Schools have been given small batches of postal tests, but these take a very long time to be returned. 

Funding

All schools in the country are currently having to cover members of staff who are absent because of Covid. This is totally understandable, and we all would support the policy of staff isolating until they are safe to return to school. 

But there is not currently any funding for this cover, and so schools are spending money that they will then have to cut from other areas. There has recently been an announcement that some funding will be available, but this seems to be just for schools who are on the brink of closure.

This doesn’t help with children with complex needs, who are spending up to two weeks at a time without any support, as there is no money to pay for their cover. This is much too blunt a measure and will mean that most schools won’t be eligible. 

Pay freeze for three years

With Rishi Sunak’s recent announcements, teacher pay has been frozen for three years. In the light of how teachers have supported children (and working parents) through this pandemic, this seems harsh

Nobody becomes a teacher to make money, but a salary that keeps up with inflation doesn’t seem too much to ask. 

Ofsted

As it stands, Ofsted is due to return in the second week of January 2021. The new guidance for Ofsted (published last Friday night) shows a lack of understanding for the daily challenges facing teachers. Ofsted will not only be looking at the quality of education in schools (as they normally do) but they will also be scrutinising the implementation and impact of remote learning. 

This is a noble aim, but when you actually consider the reality of it, it soon becomes impossible. 

Firstly, the “guidance” on remote learning is based on an Education Endowment Foundation document published in April. There are interesting points in this research, but the footnotes do state repeatedly that there is no research or evidence on the efficacy of remote learning for primary-age pupils. 

It seems therefore nonsensical for Ofsted to be judging this efficacy based on a report with no data yet available from primary schools. Certainly, having taught remotely groups of pupils who are isolating, while simultaneously trying to engage a group of pupils in the classroom, the crucial factors are whether the child has appropriate technology and whether their parents are able to support them with technology and the learning. 

Without these two protective factors, I can teach to my best ability, and assess and monitor and evaluate, and there will be no impact. I urge you to reconsider the return of Ofsted in January 2021. 

Vaccination

The final thing that prompted me to write to you was the discovery that teachers (despite the increasing body of evidence that children can carry the virus asymptomatically) are nowhere to be seen on the vaccination list

Is this an oversight? Or do you really have so little respect for us that you are happy for us to continue working unprotected with hundreds of people every day, when there is a vaccine available for other key workers?

In summary... 

I would request that you consider the following:

  • For schools to have timely access to sufficient testing and for results to be returned quickly.
  • For Ofsted’s inspection of remote learning to commence only once clear research on the efficacy of remote learning in primary education is completed and evaluated, and there is a clear consensus on what we are trying to achieve with remote education for primary pupils.
  • For teachers and support staff to be part of the priority vaccination list. 
  • For schools to receive adequate funding to support the covering of staff who are absent as a result of Covid (and not just when the school is at risk of closure).
  • For Rishi Sunak to reconsider the three-year pay freeze for teachers.
  • For a decision to be made immediately about key stage 2 Sats, GCSEs and A levels. 

At a time when teachers are doing two jobs simultaneously (live and remote teaching), wearing coats all day, as school buildings have to be well ventilated, and eating lunch alone in their classrooms, as staffrooms have to be avoided, some feedback from you on these issues would be hugely appreciated.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours truly,

Emily Gazzard

Emily Gazzard is a primary English coordinator in London

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