'The teaching profession feels abandoned'

Let down by the government, school staff must try to relieve the pressure and stress for each other, writes Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted

Coronavirus: Teachers feel like they have been abandoned, says NEU teaching union leader Mary Bousted

“Beleaguered” is the term that comes to mind when I think of staff in schools and colleges.

I get the sense that the profession feels abandoned. Cut adrift by ministers who have said very little to them about the essential and important work they are doing in the most difficult circumstances.

The significant and time-consuming challenges of running a Covid-secure school remain largely unacknowledged by this government. School leaders see their staffing budgets disappear, as teachers isolate and are replaced by supply staff. 

The huge cost of extra cleaning and the loss of income from lettings to outside bodies means that leaders are looking at significant and increasing budget deficits – for secondary schools of between a quarter and half a million pounds.

Coronavirus: Teachers feel more isolated than ever before

Teachers talk of the stress and pressure they are under. Theirs is a collegiate activity, but teachers feel more isolated than ever before, with the staffroom out of bounds and lunchtimes spent cooped up with pupils in classrooms. 

Both they and support staff talk of the exhausting extra work involved in staggered start and end times, staggered lunchtimes, keeping "bubble groups" apart, supervising hygiene measures (has anyone counted how long it takes for 30 young children to wash their hands?) and so on.

Adults working in schools and colleges, in whatever capacity, feel nervous and insecure about their safety. Uniquely, they are being asked to work in crowded buildings without social distancing and without personal protective equipment. 

As knowledge of Covid-19 develops, they know that secondary students have the highest rate of infection of any age group. While it has fallen a little as a result of the half-term holiday, it is likely to carry on increasing. 

This concern is heightened by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) finding that children aged 12 to 16 played a significantly higher role in introducing infection into households in the period after schools reopened their doors to all students. 

A pressure-cooker environment

Gone, it appears, are the easy assurances of those commentators and MPs who were convinced – on inadequate and shaky evidence – that pupils do not transmit the virus.

And, while we must be thankful that pupils are highly unlikely to become ill themselves, the ever-present reality that adults in schools could catch the virus from asymptomatic teenagers adds to the stress and the pressure-cooker environment.

It is no wonder that half-term barely touched the sides of school staff exhaustion. And now the long haul to Christmas – dark in the morning and the early afternoon and, with recent weather, damp and grey all day – in cold classrooms with windows wide open to the elements to increase ventilation.

Boris Johnson went against SAGE advice to include schools in any further lockdown. I recognise that this is a difficult and controversial issue. Undoubtedly, any lockdown that allows more than 10 million children, young people and adults to attend schools and colleges can, at best, be described as partial. This decision will limit the suppression of Covid and make further restrictions – particularly in high-risk areas – inevitable.

The question of whether or not schools and colleges should be included in the lockdown is also highly contested among school staff. Those who disagree believe strongly that schools must remain open, particularly for disadvantaged pupils.

And there is no doubt at all that the insistence from some quarters that schools are only about academic achievement, and should not play a central, cohesive role in their community – looking out for and protecting the most vulnerable children in so many ways – has been shown for the lie it is.

How do we keep schools running? 

So the question is not whether, but how, to keep schools running so that they are able to educate and support their pupils. Serious consideration needs to be given to the “how”. 

The NEU teaching union wrote to Boris Johnson on 10 June, with its education recovery plan. This advocates: increasing the size of school sites to enable social distancing; providing laptops to pupils without them, so that they can actually access education when they are isolating at home; and increasing staffing and cleaning budgets, so that schools and colleges can operate safely. The letter remains unanswered, and its recommendations have not been implemented. 

Let down by Boris Johnson and education ministers, the one thing that remains is for colleagues to treat each other well, to recognise the pressure and stress each are under and to do all they can to relieve this and to show care and support in real and practical ways.

So this is not the time for in-school accountability measures that pile on even more pressure. Teachers are working flat out. They do not need learning walks or book scrutiny. If they are eligible for progression on the pay scale, then they should be awarded the extra pay without reference to pre-Covid and unobtainable objectives.

Now is the time for leaders to show that they trust their teachers and support staff to do their best. And, in turn, that trust will lead to better outcomes for their pupils. 

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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