Schools are open and working with every single pupil

It is time to support what schools are doing right now and worry less about what they may do in the future

Paul Whiteman

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, has warned politicians that they are creating chaos that today's young people will have to fix

Every morning, we wake up to a world that has changed profoundly, seemingly overnight.

Schools, colleges and childcare settings are not admitting most of their pupils. While this amounts to closure for most families, for schools it could not be further from the truth. Despite all the dramatic changes in society, classrooms are still being staffed safely, home-learning is being organised and food for children who would otherwise go hungry is being arranged.

Schools are operating, and school leaders and their staff are still working.

They remain open for key worker families and for vulnerable children. While the numbers are low nationally, staff are still going into school for the pupils who are arriving and are providing vital care and support for those pupils who are having to deal with the anxieties of the current situation.

There are also very significant local differences and we know that in some special schools for example, the number of pupils attending remains relatively high.

This is the school-level contribution to the national effort. Purposefully and willingly, education professionals in all settings have stepped up to play their part.

The majority of contact I have had with school leaders is characterised by a willingness to do the maximum that they can and a desire to ask in what other ways they can bring their expertise and resources to bear.

Schools are doing their utmost

One clear example of this is the immense amount of work that has gone into providing food for pupils. By the time the national voucher scheme came online, schools had already worked intensively to sort out their own local solutions. Many schools have delivered food directly to families, almost like a food bank would do.

Staff are preparing daily resources and activities for pupils. We have seen thousands of examples of video lessons and online story-telling sessions and other content for pupils who are at home. Schools have put together packs of home-learning materials, including pens, pencils, art materials and books and hand delivered them to pupils’ homes. Schools have loaned laptops and tablets, again, well ahead of any official schemes.

Every school is doing their utmost to maintain contact with pupils who they are most worried about given their absence from school, including phoning vulnerable families to check on wellbeing and to offer support with home learning.

Teachers have been responding quickly to the new way of assessing GCSE and A level grades. There will be a massive amount of expectation placed on them this year to determine robust grades for all their students.

Overwhelmingly, schools have moved to an entirely new rota for their teams, to allow them to come into school safely and then work from home. The complexity of this in some settings cannot be overstated.

All this, before the immense task of supporting pupils who have lost loved ones to this cruel virus.

Right now, education is full of people who are demonstrating exactly why they chose a career in public service in the first place.

In doing so, they are suppressing their innermost fears, while projecting outward calm. They are dealing with their own family and life pressures while performing vital work as key workers alongside other frontline services. That is hard work – and though they might be losing sleep over it, no one is shirking it.

Of course, the risk to teachers may be less than that of an intensive care nurse, but much higher than it is for those able to work from home. The talk of a lack of courage yesterday is not just misplaced, it is distasteful.

As well as courage, school leaders and their teams have shown almost infinite reserves of resourcefulness. By acting collectively and organising themselves effectively, they have moved mountains in mere moments.

Things aren’t perfect. School leaders are adapting as they go like everyone else.

School leaders are as worried as anyone else about the most vulnerable children on their roll and they are already doing all they can to guarantee the safety of these young people and to address any widening of the disadvantage gap caused by lockdown. They are not waiting for a return to school to do this, they are doing it now.

In short, teachers and leaders are working incredibly hard every day. Although only a limited percentage of children pass the school gate each morning, schools are working to support 100 per cent of their pupils. I am worried that this is being overshadowed by the speculation about reopening and what might happen next.

And please don’t forget the effect on children’s mental health in all this.

Science tells us that the virus presents a very low risk to young people, but they are not immune to the effects of the most dangerous and emotionally challenging experiences of recent generations. When it is over, they will be recovering.

There is some debate about working through the summer, ostensibly to make up for lost time but disregarding the work and stress that I’ve mentioned here. We should remember that the September to December term is already the longest one of the school year. Lengthening it would ignore the common knowledge that pupils are typically worn out well before the Christmas holidays. On this issue, we must be extremely careful about how we tread.

Chatter and speculation has not helped a single child. The hard work and care of education professionals continues to support young people every day.

Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union

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