|Volume 50 Number 28, July 25, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
It has now been five months since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Britain. From the outset in late February and early March, as the number of cases and then deaths caused by the virus began to mount, teachers and support staff, schools and education unions, found themselves having to deal with the problems arising, as well as having to sort out the arrangements now needed in the new conditions.
Given the nature and extent of the crisis into which the whole of society was plunged, people were looking to the government for guidance and help in dealing with the new conditions. However, the government abjectly failed to respond to the calls of the education workers or to give any sort of responsible leadership throughout this time. Indeed, this whole period has been characterised by a refusal of a reckless government to address, to discuss, or even listen to the questions of what resources and support are needed at this time.
Instead of which, at various points during the last five months, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has tried to assume a veneer of authority by simply making announcements about what he and the government has decided will be, but without reference to those delivering the education, and often flying in the face of the oft-quoted science, and in direct contradiction with what was clearly needed or what teachers and their unions were desperately calling for.
By contrast, it has been the teachers, support staff and their unions who have from the outset got on with the business of doing the thinking, the preparation, the provision of new resources, and the getting to grips with an entirely new way of teaching classes using online technology and formats such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. And they have done this with the highest sense of social responsibility and the express aim of looking after the wellbeing of the children in their care.
From the word go, this whole period has shown up the contrast and contradiction between the abstract government announcements, full of sound and fury, signifying only their attempts to sound authoritative but manifestly out of step with the reality of what has been going on; and the responsible and organised discussions and actions of the teachers and education unions. Teachers, support staff and schools have, throughout this pandemic, been having widespread and mass meetings together to consult on all aspects of what needed to be done. For example, from late February, it became clear that the virus was taking hold in Britain and that the evidence from countries such as Italy and Korea was showing not only how overwhelmingly devastating this disease was, but that the immediate solution was to lock down to restrict the rapid spread of the virus.
The National Education Union (NEU) wrote and appealed to the government on March 9 and then again on March 16 to close all schools in England to stop the spread of the virus. However, the government's initial response was to claim that the science was indicating that they should follow so-called "herd immunity" and use schools to accelerate, not limit, the course of the virus. At this point, the NEU and eight other unions met online with all their members, which included the very new measure of holding online participatory meetings involving thousands of teachers and education workers. As a consequence of all this discussion, a statement was sent from the nine unions to Gavin Williamson declaring that their considered view necessitated the immediate closure of schools, and that if the government failed to heed this call, then the unions would order the mass walkout of all their members. Within days, the government then announced that schools would close on March 20 and that the whole of England would enter into lockdown from March 23.
As the virus took hold, many teachers gave up their entire Easter break to work on new resources which could be supplied to pupils online. Schools also worked overtime to provide centres for the children of essential workers. This entailed entirely new arrangements within the schools and a raft of other measures to deal with education in all aspects within the new conditions, including working out how to provide staffing of children of essential workers during lockdown, how to run any sort of school timetable online, how to look after and cater for the individual needs of vulnerable children and staff, how to fund all the health and hygiene measures that became necessary, and - looking ahead - how to manage any form of social-distancing once schools did return. And throughout there have been numerous and regular online meetings involving thousands of people all participating and working to solve the problems so that, whilst recognising, as NEU co-President Kevin Courtney expressed it, there could be no "business as usual", schools would safeguard the wellbeing of the children in their care, whilst ensuring that everything was done to continue to provide an education for all children.
On the other hand, and often in opposition to all these efforts, the government has consistently refused to consult with education unions, it failed to acknowledge the urgent need for resources to supply all of the PPE and cleaning needed within schools opening on this special basis, and it would not respond to the Five Tests drawn up by the NEU and other teaching unions calling for measures to be put in place to ensure the safety of teachers and workplaces before schools returned to on-site learning. More urgently, the government was not listening to teachers nor recognising that, within the new conditions, the vast majority of teaching was now happening online, and many teachers, and especially whole swathes of pupils from disadvantaged or poorer working class backgrounds, simply could not afford the necessary computers or internet connection costs necessary to receive this education. Instead, pronouncement followed pronouncement.
In what appears to have been a desperate bid to reassert its authority, the government abruptly announced towards the end of May that schools would reopen on June 1. However, it was not possible for many schools to comply with that date. It was then decided that a few select year groups would return on June 8, and then on June 15. However, as very little funding was offered to underpin these decisions, many schools lacked the staffing and resources to carry out them out. Other pronouncements decreed that schools would have to maintain "bubbles" of 15 children, which involved huge logistical arrangements to sort out, but which by late June had been amended to include "bubbles" of some 300 pupils, something that by that stage could hardly justify the term "bubble".
All of these "decisions" have been done in a reckless and incoherent manner, without any consultation and without any seeming regard or care for the wellbeing of those who were going to have to implement them and have been characterised by a refusal to engage with the realities on the ground.
What has become clear from all these goings on is that throughout the Covid-19 crisis it has been the educators - the teachers, support staff, schools and the education unions - who have worked tirelessly to provide an education for and to safeguard the wellbeing of all children throughout England, Scotland and Wales. To do this they have had to deal with the often irrational and arbitrary decisions being made by government. Throughout this crisis, education workers have fought to speak in their own name, and by doing so, have shown that the necessity is to acquire the power to become the authority with the right to speak and to decide what should be done to ensure the highest provision of education for pupils and students.