A teacher’s fears about a 1 June return to school

by
18 May 2020

A class teacher does not believe that returning to school now is safe

PA

Reduced class sizes in Slovenia. The first three primary years, and the final year of secondary, returned to school on Monday

Reduced class sizes in Slovenia. The first three primary years, and the final year of secondary, returned to school on Monday

SO, TEACHERS like me should not be so “middle-class” and should “stop squabbling”. The advice of the Revd Steve Chalke and the reprimand of the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, apart from being offensive to the hard-working teachers who have been putting in long days and often nights to teach their classes from home, is just dangerous.

No one has challenged the view, acknowledged at last by the Government on Saturday, that opening schools is likely to cause the R-rate, the measure of how widely the coronavirus is being spread, to rise “a little”. The focus has been on the fact that children generally display far milder symptoms.

The Government has also cited the experience of other countries. Denmark and now New South Wales are favourites; but their rate of infection has been far lower than the UK, perhaps because they introduced the lockdown and transport bans more promptly than here.

A key finding from reseach by the University of East Anglia seems to have been neglected in all this: that the closing of schools around the world was the factor that was followed by the greatest reduction in infection rates. The Office of National Statistics has now shown that children have the same levels of infection as adults.

Both these findings came out after the Government had announced its programme for school opening. It is odd that neither has had any influence on a Government “led by the science”.

 

THERE is bound to be an element of risk in every move to relax the restrictions that successfully brought down the infection rate. In most instances, individuals have a say in how much risk they accept, based on official advice. Teachers, however, were not asked to contribute to the discussion about what level of risk was acceptable. The decision was taken by Downing Street without reference even to the chief scientific adviser to the Department for Education. We have instead been told by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, that schools are will be safe by any “reasonable definition of the word”.

For its part, the Government has refused to say what it considers that risk to be, despite a direct question in the official briefing last Friday. It has not explained why a conveniently memorable date such as 1 June is going to be the first day on which the risk is reduced to an acceptable level. Any data behind the decision have not been released to the teaching unions or independent scientists, despite strong recommendations for openness.

All we are told is that the risk to students will be “low”. There is some risk, therefore, particularly for those with pre-existing medical conditions. What has not been addressed is the risk that remains to teachers or to the rest of the children’s families — even when the reams of guidance that has been issued is followed to the letter (were that possible).

 

THE second problem with Mr Chalke’s and Ms Longfield’s characterisation of teachers is that it is simply wrong.

Teachers receive annual training in safeguarding. Many are trained in first aid. They prioritise the safety of their students over all other factors. Safely trumps education, and it trumps the convenience of teachers, schools, parents, or the wider economy.

In fact, not to prioritise a student’s health would be a serious breach of professional ethics, safeguarding responsibilities, employment contracts, and, ultimately, the law. An identified mental-health risk will, of course, be an urgent concern, but in all but very severe cases it will be subordinate to a physical risk.

After this, teachers have real concerns for their own safety and that of their families. Many teachers live with medical conditions that would make infection more serious; others live with family members who are at higher risk.

What they are now being asked to contemplate is not new. Schools were kept open in the early phase of the crisis, despite scientific warnings, and teachers had to live with the fact that going into school made them the main infection risk to their families. It was ever thus, of course, but not with such potentially fatal consequences.

Mr Chalke says that, in his schools, teachers need not go back until they are “comfortable” with the school’s arrrangements. In many schools, this is comforting fiction at best. I have been asked to tell my school HR department if I have concerns about the school’s reopening plan. Even were I confident enough to do that, there has been no consultation, no way of speaking out anonymously, and, as yet, no details given to be commented on.

Now, though, Mr Chalke’s acceptance of the Government’s line is being used as “evidence” by the Secretary of State that it is safe: a weird circular argument that simply puts more pressure on teachers.

 

SO, IN the absence of reassuring scientific evidence, where is the pressure coming from? There are genuine concerns about educational gaps and the mental health of many children, and Mr Chalke and Ms Longfield are not alone in having a passion to tackle these challenges. It is undeniable that children who cope better with remote learning will get more from this year than those who, for whatever reason, cannot.

I have already seen it in the classes I teach. It is inevitable that those from poorer family backgrounds will be disadvantaged, although the main determining factor will be the support of parents, and, increasingly with age, the child’s own attitude. Undoing the stratification after a long break will be difficult. It is already making teaching classes more difficult.

It will be possible, however. A study on Monday suggested that children from poorer backgrounds will be, on average, seven days’ schooling behind the better-off children. This is a concern, but relatively reparable compared to the alternative.

If, as the Government expects, the infection rate rises as a result of the return to school, the damage will be irreparable, because people will be dead.

Indeed, poorer parents, many of BAME backgrounds, are more likely to suffer from the health conditions that make Covid-19 more dangerous. They are more likely to live in intergenerational settings, in smaller accommodation, and more likely to work in occupations where they will expose others.

Call me cynical, but I find it hard to believe that the present Government has suddenly become keen to address children’s mental-health and educational inequality. Before the pandemic, its approach was to introduce much more “rigorous” exams; its funding programme often advantaged wealthier areas; and grammar schools were promoted, despite clear statistical evidence that they widen inequality.

Should teachers believe ministerial assurances, ignoring suspicions of economic and political motives? Or should they have more confidence in the BMA, or educational unions who exist to represent their interests?

 

WHAT I would like to see is not a set of arbitrary dates for opening schools, with a tacit expectation that infections will rise as a result — though with a time lag and opportunities to blame other factors that will obscure the effect.

The Government should, instead, confer with teachers about the damage that has undoubtedly been done to children’s education, and start planning with far greater seriousness to counteract this when it is safe — and my “reasonable definition” of what “safe” means is when opening schools will not lead to an increase in cases.

Those plans should include how to address the educational inequality that this crisis has caused, and its mental-health effects. I have heard nothing in any briefing that even hints at this. The confused and arbitrary teaching that will be possible when schools are opened too early — when class teachers will be responsible for the children in front of them and those still at home — does nothing to address the damage already done, and threatens to do more.

 

The author asked to remain anonymous.

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