May 16th, 2020
Well then. It's turned into a bit of a political football, with some arguing one way and some arguing the other... The Daily Mail's headline on Friday - which suggested that teachers should make themselves heroes by returning to work, and that the unions are the ones behind the slow pace of reopening schools - is a great example of the point made by the second article, although in this case it is the teaching unions that have an irremediably damaged reputation and a thoroughly warped place in the narrative, rather than teachers themselves. Unions exist to protect their members, their rights, their safety, their working conditions and so on. And, both on a historical level and on a current political level, they exist to interpose themselves between the workers they represent and - gasp - the more capitalist, free-market end of the political spectrum. Some commentators have even managed to be sensible about the challenge, whilst also maintaining that there are aspects of the government's choices that are questionable.
What's clear from the communication we have received from our own child's school, and from the discussion around reopening the one I work for, is that whatever 'reopening' means, the sad disappointment for the ones advocating it without understanding what it means will be that it doesn't do the job they might be hoping for. Specifically, an 'open' school will not do anything like the working week's worth of supervision / childcare / keeping-safe-and-off-the-streets / socialising (in all possible senses) / education that it has previously offered. Once that message starts to permeate into the discussion, perhaps some of the more emotive language (on both sides...?) may calm down. Although it must be noted that the point raised by the teaching unions - how do you do this safely? - is the same one that heads and their teams are currently trying to answer, and it is abundantly clear that the answer includes the caveat, 'with great difficulty'. I want(ed) an answer to a question I raised in one of those arguments on the internet where there are no winners: am I supposed to avoid your children in every conceivable context except the one which facilitates you going back to work? I didn't get an answer in that particular exchange, other than that the risk to the children was low. The evidence is limited at best for this, and I am not willing as a parent for my child to be part of a study which would not pass the first round of a university ethics committee's scrutiny. Equally, I'd rather not contract the virus myself, although I am supposed to be only a bit likely to die. My parents, on the other hand, who would probably end up in the position that they have been previously of being the main back-up childcare option, are fairly likely to die if they contract the virus.
The Children's Commissioner has stepped in to this argument, telling the sides to stop squabbling and reach an agreement. It can be no surprise that some papers have reported this as 'squabbling unions told to grow up and get back to work'... But it is worth noting that there is very rarely a spin on these types of stories that says 'unions protect their members by questioning politically-motivated decision to send them into unsafe working environment'. For some reason...
Anyway, here's something I found myself duty-bound to write, largely on the rather similar basis that a discussion in the national media really ought to start with facts, rather than judgement...
Schools are currently open. Key workers (and others) have had the option of sending their children in to school for the last eight weeks - in the case of my school, that includes during the Easter holiday. So we're not 'reopening schools'; we're widening the net of who can attend. Discussion (in school management, and in communication between school and parents) centres around realistically limiting the number of students returning so they can manage the ones they do get effectively. The issue with the narrative in the newspapers (lazy unions blocking reopening) is that it doesn't capture the actual question, which is how can we get more kids (not all kids - you're going to be very disappointed if you think you can go back to work full time) into schools without causing the sort of havoc that school closures were supposed to prevent. There's still an inconsistency in policy - that teachers are supposed to avoid other people's kids in all conceivable situations except school - which needs some smoothing over before any teachers will be convinced that this move is about education rather than facilitating a return to economic normality by providing 'childcare'. The next week is absolutely critical in managing this situation, because if it moves (further?) towards the government imposing its will on a country's worth of headteachers, there will be a real risk of the schools being forced to run in ways contradicting the guidance, and individual heads will have to make potentially harmful choices that they shouldn't be pushed into making.
I can add the very salient point made by another teacher blogger that it doesn't matter how much he wants to go back, we shouldn't pile in to school unless it really is safe to do so. One point missed by the papers - of all stripes -is that even if teachers are the workshy, feckless bunch of layabouts we're made out to be, that doesn't speak on whether it's safe to send your kid back to school. Even if teachers were on an extended holiday, sipping the proverbial lunchtime margherita in the sun, that wouldn't change what matters to the decisions about schools.
Let's all hope that the people in charge aren't chancing it for political gain. There are plenty of things that could happen to help us all believe that. It's time those things started to happen.
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