|Volume 50 Number 25, July 4, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
With the likelihood of a "second wave" in Britain of the coronavirus pandemic, there is serious concern among teaching staff as to what the future holds. These concerns are being voiced in the context of what should be the direction of the economy. The economy cannot be based on favouring the rich and the oligarchs. Education must be geared not to fulfilling the vested interests of those in power who claim class privilege, but rather it must be geared to taking responsibility for the future of society where the rights of all are recognised by virtue of their humanity.
In education, the old direction presupposes training children as in a race to get on in life, rather than showing how to take up responsibility for the future of society. So the issue is presented as some children "falling behind". This is introducing a kind of panic when schools have been closed, education has been online, and the poor and vulnerable have suffered when there is a lack of resources. It is being asked by the teaching profession and in society at large as to what education children as a whole are missing out on.
The government published new guidelines for schools, for further and higher education, as well as local authority children's services and other edicts, as of July 2. In a press statement from the Department of Education and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, the government explains that current restrictions on group sizes are to be lifted. It is proposing to expand the "bubbles" from 15 children to class or year-group numbers. A year group could be anything from 240 to 300. How does one maintain a "bubble" of 300 and does it have any meaning? Problems posed by this are huge. How can independent classes be maintained, where classes of children come to the teacher be taught?
The press releases says that "Covid-19 secure measures will remain in place to reduce the risk of transmission", and that where "there is a positive case in a school or college, the Public Health England local health protection team will advise on the appropriate action, which could include small groups of young people and staff being asked to self-isolate for up to 14 days. Where there are two or more confirmed cases in a two-week period, health protection teams may ask a larger number of other children or young people to self-isolate at home as a precautionary measure."
This raises the whole question of testing and transmission via children. The guidelines put forward a whole rigmarole for what to do if there is a positive case in a school or college, which bears little or no relation to the schools' realities. And the implication is that if there is more than one positive test in a "bubble" of 300, all children and teachers should isolate for 14 days! Not only this, but schools "will be expected to have plans in place to offer remote education to pupils who are self-isolating".
Included in the guidelines are exhortations to constant cleaning, social distancing, minimising contact and reducing the use of frequently-shared items. This does not take into account that there are neither funds nor resources for many schools, especially state schools, to follow these guidelines and provide, for example, portaloos, facilities for all children to wash their hands in these conditions, and so on. Social distancing rules imply the use of makeshift classrooms and portakabins.
All the announcements of the government are random, made without consultation. Many schools are saying they have not the time nor resources to implement what may or may not look good on paper but teachers would have to be superhuman to carry out. In other words, the guidelines are not based on actual objective conditions. And there is a growing divide between state and independent schools, which have more space and resources, though the independent schools are also finding it difficult to make sense of guidelines which are made divorced from the needs and advice of teachers and support staff. Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) has on more than one occasion said that the government is incoherent.
This situation also raises the issue of the rights of the people who do the work. There is no escape from the fact that teachers' working conditions are the pupils' learning conditions. In the state sector, whole schools have been furloughed. After end of furlough in August, schools are to pay 60% of wages and the government 40%. Independent schools are laying off staff and also closing, and it is being said that this represents the thin end of the wedge. In other words, there is a crisis, with portions of school system based on profit, and parents asking in these circumstances what they are getting for their money. In the state sector, staff are also being pressured to return to work, and blamed for children falling behind or not getting the education they need, and the accusation is unjustly levelled at teachers that they are not shouldering their responsibility. Far from it. The teachers are the ones who are acting responsibly and attempting to resolve the problems which are endemic in the education system.
The government portrays that the issue is simply how many children go back to school and when. However, take the issue of online lessons, which is built on the premise that everybody should have computers and access to internet. Many schools do not even have resources to provide equipment to staff let alone children. A socially responsible education system cannot just make edicts but has to provide what is necessary, such as computers, adequate bandwidth, and so on. Talk of "bubbles" is not making sense, but is in fact creating a divide, and asking people to fend for themselves.
Amid all this, the government has announced that GCSE exams are going ahead, delayed probably until the end of July. They would normally have been held in mid-May. Now teachers are being asked to stay teaching the GCSE year-group until the end of July 2021 and give up holidays to mark, re-mark and supervise results.
Teachers have already spent Easter holidays in preparing, in cleaning classrooms, and so on. This has been exhausting for the whole profession, especially those with small children at home. Now there is even a suggestion of summer catch-up lessons, especially for years 11 and 13. On top of this, there is a proposal to also have a year 14, for those pupils who need an extra year for their A levels.
Teachers and their unions are raising that the government is asking schools to follow a programme which assumes just business as usual only more so, in order that children do not "miss out". It is raising the question among the teaching profession and among many parents as to what kind of education is required in society, post-pandemic. Teachers and their unions are asking, can we not use this as an opportunity to assess what is taught and how, and question all these educational tests? Why would you not use this time to re-assess what teachers do as a body, what values should be inculcated in the young, how to responsibly give to the next generation? Is it not the case that SATs or Ofsted tests are not there for the pupils, but to "regulate" teaching staff and provide league tables that just serve big business?
There are not a few other issues which are being raised at this time, as teachers fight to make their voice heard and be heeded. For instance, it appears that under cover of the pandemic a number of schools have withdrawn from the state-funded Teachers' Pension Scheme (TPS), and are expecting teachers to subscribe to a private pension scheme.
There are extra difficulties facing peripatetic teachers, impacting lives of so many, especially after furlough ends at end of August. Such teachers will have to reconsider their situation since they are excluded, because of coming into contact with different schools, from the government's conception of "bubbles".
The pastoral aspect of a teacher's role has also come to the fore in this crisis, a role that is often overlooked and gets to the heart of the educational values that should be prevalent.
In short, the crisis and the teachers' responsible response to it have put on the agenda the issue of a future where education for all is a right, alongside health and culture, and that society should be considering this question. In fighting for their rights and to make their voices heard as they are exhorted to run even faster with even fewer resources, teachers are raising that post-Covid-19, there cannot be the same aims and content as before. There is a necessity for change, for which teachers are speaking out.