Why it's time for teachers to start saying 'no'

With last-minute plans for a staggered term start and mass testing, the government has gone too far, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus and schools: It's time for teachers to make a stand against the government's hare-brained plans, says Geoff Barton

It is, I suppose, the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. The government, I mean. Because every time you think the government cannot possibly set a new low in its handling of education, it manages somehow to do so.

And it certainly exceeded itself in yesterday’s shockingly chaotic last-minute announcement about a staggered start to next term and hopelessly muddled plans for mass Covid testing.

Any secondary school or college leader who was looking forward to some sort of break – after spending the first six days of the holiday period contact-tracing, of course – was rudely disabused of that notion by the news that the government had other ideas.

Not only do leaders now have to draw up new plans to teach priority groups in school and provide remote learning for everyone else, but they are also being asked to turn their schools into something akin to “field hospitals” – as ASCL president Richard Sheriff aptly put it.

Coronavirus and schools: Government sticking its fingers in its ears

As ever, none of it needed to be like this. If the government had spent the last few weeks planning with schools how to stage short periods of remote learning to suppress the spread of the virus, rather than flinging around threats when schools dared to suggest such an idea, all this chaos could have been avoided.

If, at an earlier stage, it had discussed in a sensible, calm and rational manner how mass testing might be introduced in schools and colleges, in a way that was manageable and deliverable, then we could already be doing this, rather than trying to make sense of what the government has in mind.

However, what it has actually been doing is robotically repeating the mantra that education is a national priority and that all schools must be open full-time, while sticking its fingers in its ears and chanting, “La, la, la,” every time anybody mentions the fact that it might be sensible to take a slightly more nuanced approach, given the fact that Covid infection rates are spiralling out of control.

Make no mistake. It has been desperately trying to resist making the sort of announcement it made yesterday, lest the dreaded word “U-turn” appear in headlines once again. But it is obviously so alarmed by the Covid car crash heading in our direction that it has had to act. One can only imagine that its scientific advisers have been issuing some pretty stern warnings behind the scenes.

The government's hare-brained approach

So it has, incredibly belatedly, been dragged to a position that has been patently obvious to everyone else for many weeks.

The idea that all schools must be open full-time to all pupils is far too inflexible in the context of local and regional infection spikes – and is not actually happening, in any case. In reality, many schools are far from being fully open, and have been running with large numbers of pupils self-isolating at any one time.

What is even more irritating about all this is the fact that the government bangs on about education being a national priority as though nobody else has thought of this. And it seems to earnestly believe that its hare-brained approach is unquestionably synonymous with this ambition.

For school and college leaders and their staff, education is very obviously a national priority, and it is they who are actually delivering it.

Even now, the government is trying to dig itself out of a hole of its own making by insisting that this first week after Christmas is just a blip, and “face-to-face education for all” will be starting on 11 January. It must know that what will actually happen is that large numbers of children will be out of school self-isolating at that point in time, so it obviously won’t be face-to-face education for all. 

And is this even sensible? Would it perhaps be better– at the very least – to keep the door open for a second week of blended learning by saying that the situation will be kept under review?

The crackpot scheme for mass Covid testing

And then there’s the crackpot scheme for mass Covid testing. We can all agree the principle of mass testing is great. Who in their right mind would possibly disagree? But it is utterly useless if it is undeliverable. 

What schools have been told is: that they will need to somehow find lots of staff to run this programme, in a space that they will have to find from somewhere; that there will be some reimbursement for “reasonable costs” without any idea of how much; that their staff will need to take on roles that sound suspiciously like medical tasks; that the Army will be involved in some undefined way.

Apparently, testing will be optional “but strongly encouraged” – one can imagine the regional schools commissioners already getting their letters ready – and this will all magically start from the first week of January. It hardly warrants the description of being a “plan” – it’s more like a vague aspiration. 

The officials in the civil service are a sensible bunch. They must know that this is completely nutty. It’s the very definition of a hospital pass from politicians who clearly lost the plot some time ago. And, in turn, that hospital pass is now coming in our direction.

Well, perhaps on this occasion we just shouldn’t accept it. Instead, politely but firmly, we should say that we are raring to go when we have a proper, workable and deliverable plan, but we’ll wait until that plan actually exists. 

Our members are saying: enough is enough. We agree.

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

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