Grit your teeth and bear it behind a mask? Students and teachers have endured dramatic changes to their daily lives.PIXABAY

“Back to school” is no longer evocative of a trip to Clarks or a trawl through shops in search of itchy grey trousers and unflattering polo shirts – or maybe a new stationery set that barely lasts beyond November. Instead, as government COVID U-turns become as irritatingly predictable as school homework timetables, teachers, students and schools are preparing to limp through another term under the cosh of an Education Secretary whose diplomatic skillset stretches to keeping a tarantula on his desk when he was Chief Whip. Subtlety and compassion clearly have no place on Gavin Williamson’s COVID curriculum.

Meanwhile, anxious teachers are bracing themselves for another overstretched term in under-resourced classrooms that even the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) caution is unsafe and unwise. Scapegoating and bashing teachers is nothing new for Conservative Education Secretaries, but pitching them unprotected against a known killer is a new low.

“Scientific guidance-heeding headteachers are faced with a fearsome choice: the health and lives of staff against the progress of the next generation.”

At the time of writing, Williamson has reneged on Michael Gove’s adamant claim that children of key workers and students taking exams this year would return to school at the start of term, followed a week later by all other students. This has been postponed by just a week, with only some schools in areas where COVID is particularly rife encouraged to close. In the face of new-variant COVID, Williamson still expects that by mid-January most schools will be at full capacity, against the terse advice of scientists on both SAGE and its independent namesake. Arms twisted by Williamson’s threats of legal action, as seen in Greenwich and Islington before Christmas, scientific guidance-heeding headteachers are faced with a fearsome choice: the health and lives of staff against the progress of the next generation.

A Lancashire secondary school teacher told me of their concerns “about the safety in the building because of the high level of interaction with students, usually without masks and always without distancing”. To assuage such concerns, the government has a fiendish plan for school testing that appears as reliable and well-considered as our “world-beating” track and trace scheme, the clear-as-mud Tier system, and the delaying of the autumn circuit-breaker lockdown. Speaking to The Guardian two weeks ago, Robin Bevan, headteacher at Southend High School for Boys, said the government’s plan for daily testing of close contacts to reduce lost school days will require 100,000 testers to cover every English school and college. Williamson’s December 30th announcement rightly stated that all staff and students should be tested before returning, with 1,500 military personnel on hand to assist, a number significantly smaller than Bevan’s estimate. In place of skilled volunteers and proper resources, the government is sending schools a 15 minute training video, some minor PPE, and presumably some more “British spirit” and good will as under-resourced schools prepare to take on extra responsibility.

Teachers are no strangers to onslaughts from Tory ministers, whether sudden changes in education policy and practice, the introduction of unpopular performance-related pay, or clumsy criticism of “the blob” by the Department for Education’s most detestable double act, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. However, putting the lives of both teachers and vulnerable relatives of children at risk is something not seen before. Several teachers told me they were “terrified”. One said, “I work in a Tier 3 area. Usually at least one student is absent because they tested positive. One of my students lost three members of their family through COVID.” Education is a vital social equaliser, but in such circumstances, sending unprotected teachers, often vulnerable for age or health related reasons, into schools riddled with disease is surely a step too far.

“Several teachers told me they were ‘terrified’.”

Teachers were aware in September that returning to school during a pandemic would require compromise and adjustment. They accepted it required a total change to their working lives to protect the educational chances of the nation’s next generation. Longer lessons, exhausting treks between classrooms to keep students static, and restrictions on peer assessments or group work became part of the “new normal”. In a deprived part of Cornwall, a state secondary school teacher, already anxious about lack of resources, following eight percent cuts to school funding since 2010, and her own exposure during the pandemic, questioned how she and her colleagues would respond to the task of COVID testing from January. Meanwhile, independent schools such as Eton College and Benenden have purchased their own testing machines or rolled out successful testing regimes, rubbing new salt in the gaping wound of Independent vs State performance that threatens to become as wide in health as in educational attainment.


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For schools to return in January as Williamson envisages, teachers’ work on the COVID frontline must be recognised. Their lives deserve to be protected, and their contributions appreciated. Yet, under a government that advocates community claps and hero badges for NHS staff, then callously denies them a pay rise, any such prospect of proper recognition and support for teachers appears highly unlikely.