As the government begins to ease the lockdown, increased pressure is being put on schools to reopen. “Let Our Teachers Be Heroes” cried the Daily Mail, in a front page story where the pictures of BAME pupils were carefully cropped out. Our Tory Mayor Andy Street has called for all schools in England to reopen at the same time, to send a clear message to parents. You can see his point: the government's messaging on COVID-19 has been a model of clarity and precision so far, and it would be a shame if people got confused by mixed messaging now.
It is easy to understand why so many are keen for pupils to return to school. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are hit hardest from missing out on their education. West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson has spoken of his concerns that many young people are in danger of being recruited by gangs and falling into a life of crime. Yet just because we want schools to reopen, that does not mean that it is safe enough for them to do so. Teachers are rightly concerned about the implications for their health if they return to the classroom. They are hardly convinced by the government's published safety guidelines. For all their claims to be “following the science”, the risk assessment guidance cites the same number of scientific papers as the UK's entry in this year's Eurovision Song Contest: zero. In Denmark, where schools have started reopening, the government published its scientific guidance and used it as the basis for detailed negotiations with teaching unions as to how and when to bring pupils back to school.
Then again, education policy has not been formed with the health and welfare of either its pupils or its teachers in mind for years now. One in four teachers is attacked by a pupil every week, almost 9 in 10 teachers have received some form of physical or verbal abuse, not to mention 54% of school support staff report being injured at work. This news receives knowing grimaces from the teaching profession and shrugs from policy makers. We have seen a rise in teacher workload, with teachers in England working on average eight hours a week more than their counterparts in comparable European countries, and a quarter of teachers working 60 hours a week. This has led to a crisis in mental health issues amongst teachers, with 75% of teachers describing themselves as stressed. With over half of teachers saying their workload is unmanageable, it's no wonder that 1 in 3 teachers leaves the profession within 5 years of becoming qualified, a statistic that includes the present author.
For our young people, the situation is equally bleak. At primary school, emphasis on maths and English pushes out the chance for pupils to learn more creative subjects such as music. Demanding SATS tests which have little purpose other than to satisfy Whitehall's craving for League Tables leave many pupils anxious and in tears. Changes to the curriculum have turned schools into exam factories and mean that rather than teaching pupils the skills they will need in a 21st century workplace – such as critical thinking and how to work together with others – we try and cram their heads full of things like fronted adverbials and quotations from An Inspector Calls. It's like taking your child to the seaside and rather than letting them swim and build sandcastles, you force them to memorise the Latin names for the rocks on the beach.
The government would like our youngest pupils to return first, which makes complete sense, because social distancing comes naturally to 4 and 5 year olds. Indeed, the guidance acknowledges this when it says in a pair of comically contradictory sentences: “We know that, unlike older children and adults, early years and primary age children cannot be expected to remain 2 metres apart from each other and staff. In deciding to bring more children back to early years and schools, we are taking this into account.”
Teachers are then told that we should just encourage pupils to wash hands more regularly and minimise contact, then everything will be fine. Probably.
More seriously, I fear for the happiness of those young pupils who are going to return to school. Anyone who has seen the heartbreaking photos of French children playing alone in their designated zone on the playground will be very worried about what the impact is on our 4 and 5 year olds. The Headteacher of Wheelers Lane Primary School has begun to make plans for how they will teach young pupils, and she told Birmingham Live that “We’ve had to move a lot of furniture out of the classroom and we’re not quite sure where it’s going to go, and also it’s created quite an unpleasant environment where children aren’t able to work in groups and be sociable and do all of the things that we like to do in school when we’re working.” It's also unclear whether pupils will be able to play on playground equipment, or whether teachers will be able to help pupils who fall over and hurt themselves.
We haven't had the value of compassion at the heart of our education system for a while now. This crisis is an opportunity to reset our education system so that we put the mental wellbeing of our teachers and pupils first. It's not the time to rush back to schooling with hastily improvised classrooms that might cause more harm than good in the long run.
Cory Hazlehurst is Birmingham Labour Group Organiser. In a previous life he was a teacher in an inner-city primary school, and an NEU rep. He writes this in a personal capacity.