Sound and fury has become the default setting around education over the past few weeks and months, and recent days have been no exception.
The government finally published its Plan B for education in the event of local lockdowns, setting out the arrangements for schools and colleges in four tiers, but caused uproar by dragging its heels for so long that the guidance appeared only on the Friday night before most schools reopened.
Labour called for the date of next summer’s exams to be pushed back, to allow for more teaching time. Then the secretary of state for education accused them in the House of Commons of coming round to the government’s position belatedly, even though the government has not actually made a decision to that effect.
More bewilderingly still, the education secretary went on to assert that the government would be introducing a benchmarking assessment of all children “to ensure there is a clear understanding of where some of the learning gaps are, in order for us to best deal with them”.
Interesting, but quite when does he intend to tell schools?
Schools minister Nick Gibb told Sky News that the government’s miserly decision to leave schools to foot the bill for the safety measures needed for reopening was being kept “under review”. But he ruined the moment by declaring that the overall funding settlement was “very generous” and was there for “these kinds of extra incidentals”.
How incredibly prescient of the government to have foreseen the extra costs of Covid when it announced that funding settlement a year ago.
Our regulatory masters
Ofqual chair Roger Taylor appeared before the House of Commons Education Select Committee to explain that the flaw in the grading fiasco was not the much-maligned algorithm, but the belief that the public would ever accept such a system – and added that the government was fully informed and knew the risks.
Asked by committee chair Robert Halfon about the back-up plan if students are unable to sit next summer’s exams, Mr Taylor vaguely suggested “additional papers” and “online tests”, insisting that there’s enough time to come up with a solution to this problem.
Let’s hope he’s right, because the window of opportunity to do the more obvious thing, and stage assessments in the autumn and spring term, will disappear very quickly.
Finally this week, Ofsted decided to add to the general level of noise, with plans for autumn “visits” to schools. These are not intended to be inspections, but are likely to feel precisely like that to anybody on the receiving end, because the inspectorate intends to publish an “outcome letter”.
It is an inescapable and dispiriting conclusion that we are not being served well by our political and regulatory masters.
The business of welcoming back pupils
So, it is a relief that, amid all this hubbub, the one story that did not blow up into a great furore was the reopening itself. Among the scaremongering and rampant pessimism, schools quietly and calmly got on with the business of welcoming back their pupils, having spent the summer putting in place the appropriate safety measures. There was no drama, no disaster and no storm of controversy.
And, in the real world, there was an infinitely more reassuring and comforting sound than the noise of politics. It was the welcome re-emergence of the hubbub of children in playgrounds and corridors: a much-anticipated step towards normality, a reassertion of the patterns of life with which we are familiar.
If there was anything that tells us of the importance of this moment in the national recovery, it is surely this uplifting part of the tapestry of our cities, towns and villages.
We are not out of the woods, of course. Many parents and members of staff will very understandably be anxious about reopening, and it will take time for them to be reassured by the systems that have been put in place, and for confidence to build.
It is likely, too, that there will be setbacks. Pupils and staff will at times have to self-isolate, either because they test positive for Covid-19 or because they have been in close contact with someone else who has. This will be frightening for those affected, and it will cause practical difficulties for schools, if groups are required to self-isolate.
Outbreaks may trigger local restrictions, which will see schools having to navigate the tiered responses set out by the government.
A sense of calm, purposeful authority
And let’s remind ourselves that schools and colleges are not like any other setting. Their raison d’être is to bring large groups of adults and children together in confined spaces for lengths of time.
There are nearly 9 million pupils in England alone, and close to 1 million staff. The reopening of education is the single biggest test of the nation’s ability to withstand the threat of the coronavirus and return to a semblance of normality.
Schools cannot perform this miracle alone. The safety measures they have implemented are underpinned by public-health advice, which is itself the best estimation of the correct response to the risk of the coronavirus on the basis of developing evidence.
And it is utterly reliant upon the success or otherwise of the NHS test and trace system, which is itself dependent upon the cooperation of sufficient numbers of the wider public to make it work.
All this is fragile, and only a fool would say otherwise. It would not take very much at all for the rate of infection to teeter over one, and for this to be a very long, very hard winter indeed.
But at a time when in so many areas of our public life we see such woeful lack of leadership, we can look to our schools and colleges this week for a sense of calm, purposeful authority. The leaders of these education establishments taking the first steps in delivering the most important moment since the lockdown began in March, and that is in itself something to celebrate.
The fact that this has happened without histrionics or melodrama is deeply reassuring. As is the sound of children talking and laughing in the nation’s classrooms and playgrounds, where they belong.
Thanks to all who have made this gloriously understated moment happen this week.