Why isn't the government listening to teachers?

Teachers want to work with government in a collaborative way – but will ministers accept the offer, asks Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus: Why isn't the government listening to teachers and schools?

Writing in The Times this week, the political columnist Daniel Finkelstein suggested that the government should give Labour a role in an emergency committee to tackle the Covid crisis, in a wartime-style spirit of political cooperation at a time of national crisis.

This came after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for a short lockdown – a so-called “circuit breaker” – to address rising infection rates. 

“It is hard to know if Sir Keir would have advanced the circuit-breaker idea if he was actually involved in decision making. But surely it would be better that any ideas of his should be considered carefully in government, with everyone then having to take some responsibility for the outcome,” wrote Mr Finkelstein.

It is a good point, and reminds me of the fact that the education sector has spent this crisis outside the government tent, when things would have gone a lot better if it had been inside.

Coronavirus: Putting education inside the tent

The government will say that it has talked to the sector throughout, which is true in the sense that it has told us dribs and drabs of what it is doing, but not in the sense of meaningful consultation, let alone developing policies together.

There are risks in being inside the tent, of course. Once you are inside the tent, you are tied to decisions that you might not necessarily completely agree with. But you have to make some concessions for the sake of unity, or otherwise walk out and look like a stroppy teenager.

Indeed, you would have thought that this would have actually been politically attractive to the government, and that the supposed master-strategist who is Dominic Cummings might have seen the advantage of collaboration, if only as a way of keeping everybody on message.

But the dynamic of command and control was set very early in the Covid crisis, and the government has ploughed ahead with it ever since, regardless of the chaos. 

Thus we saw the unholy mess it managed to create in June, over the wider opening of schools to specific year groups. This was followed by plans for full reopening in September, which trickled out in the media ahead of schools knowing about them. 

Full reopening was then immediately undermined by failings in the test and trace system, the availability of public health advice, and rising infection rates. Hence school leaders are working close to 24/7, and falling over with exhaustion and anxiety.

And now we have speculation rife about the idea of a circuit-breaker: a two-week half-term to try to arrest the rise in infection rates. The government is clearly doing its best to resist that move, but experience tells us that it might suddenly reverse course at any moment.

A sector on tenterhooks

So, once again, the sector is on tenterhooks, waiting to see what happens. To be done to, rather than done with. There’s no discussion going on about whether this is an option that might be considered at any point – and, if so, how it might work. Whether there would be an expectation that remote education would be provided, or something in school for children of key workers or vulnerable children, or what would happen with free school meals.

If it does happen – if there is a circuit-breaker – it will be landed on the sector, and there will be the usual scramble to make sense of what is said, and elicit more information about the detail.

And then there’s a host of other unresolved matters. What happens with next year’s exams, performance tables, Ofsted inspections and the mounting cost of Covid control measures, weighing ever-more heavily on school budgets?

The damp squib that was the government’s announcement on Monday about the first item on this list didn’t get us much further. Exams will be held three weeks later, we learned, which is a marginal gain in teaching time to compensate for the huge disruption taking place. And there are going to be some undefined contingency measures “later in the autumn”. 

It also asserted that there will be no further subject-level changes to exams and assessments, only for Ofqual interim chief regulator Glenys Stacey to pop up the next morning on Radio 4’s Today programme to say something that appears rather different.

“More multiple-choice questions, for example, might be the answer for some subjects; exam boards providing formula sheets to take into exams in science subjects; exam boards providing other advanced materials beforehand,” she said.

“So there is no one answer here, and indeed the right approach is likely to differ between subjects, and we are on to that work now.”

The upshot is that we are still far from clear what may or may not happen next year. And, of course, as we have repeatedly pointed out, we really don’t have the luxury of time here.

All of which leads to this offer. 

Once again, we call upon the government to work in a genuinely collaborative way with the education profession, to resolve these matters that desperately need to be resolved, on behalf of children, on behalf of parents, on behalf of the country. Let’s develop plans collectively, rather than defaulting yet again to the dynamic of bodged announcements and consequent uproar. Let’s actually come up with workable solutions.

We know the risks of being in the tent, but we are prepared to take them. The question now is this: is the government itself prepared to show bold, purposeful leadership, and accept our offer?

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

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