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Education: 150 years of state schools — not the party we expected

25 September 2020

State schooling had its 150th anniversary last month. John Howson looks at some of its present-day challenges


Reception pupils from Landywood Primary School, Staffordshire, use sticks to learn social distancing earlier this year

Reception pupils from Landywood Primary School, Staffordshire, use sticks to learn social distancing earlier this year

THIS summer, the education world should have been celebrating the 150th anniversary of state schooling. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 passed into law in August of that year.

Of course, many Church of England schools had already been serving their communities for years before the Government at Westminster, under Gladstone’s premiership, finally managed to make education, if not schooling, a requirement for most children.

Many of the Church of England schools created before the 1870 Act are still in existence today, either as voluntary schools within the maintained sector, or as state-funded academies, often in a multi-academy trust administered by the diocese. Indeed, some schools are still in all or part of their original pre-1870 buildings. Most, these days, are small primary schools, still serving children in their localities up and down the country.

There have been no parties to celebrate this milestone. Instead, all schools have experienced more than six months of stress and anxiety resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no end to the pressure in sight, and looming at the end of term is the possibility that Christmas will be “cancelled”.


IN MANY villages and small communities, the school has often been the only community facility to remain open without a break through 2020. When the lockdown was imposed across the country, schools rightly and willingly stayed open for the children of a growing list of key workers, and also for vulnerable children supported by the local authority.

At the same time, head teachers had to worry about the education of the bulk of pupils isolated at home. Instead of a national strategy based on an intelligent use of modern communications, individual schools were left to fend for themselves, or rely on any support that their local authority or academy trust could provide.

As a child of the 1950s, I well recall music-and-movement lessons broadcast to schools to support primary-school teachers with little experience of physical education and dance. Listen With Mother was another national initiative on the wireless, encouraging young children to sit quietly while a story was being read.

Although broadcasters, along with other private companies and voluntary organisations, made efforts this year, it was all uncoordinated. Head teachers were all too often left to struggle to support home learning.


AS THE summer term was drawing to an end, schools started to bring whole year-groups back, especially as it seemed to become clear that, although young children could catch Covid-19, the level of infection was rarely severe. A risk remained, however, that they could transmit the virus to others in their households.

Head teachers also had to balance the risk to staff as more children returned to school, including staff in the more vulnerable age groups. Fortunately, no widespread outbreaks have been reported.

Too often in the spring and summer, head teachers report, it seemed as if the Government was endlessly requiring information from them — as in the detailed form-filling on the number of pupils in attendance — while issuing guidelines that seemed to be altered even before they had been printed off the computer screen.

While the rest of the country was contemplating either a holiday at home or the risk of a holiday abroad, head teachers and their staff were busy preparing for the full reopening of schools at the start of the autumn term. The Prime Minister made clear that this was a priority; so working out one-way systems, creating “bubbles”, and ensuring that enough protective equipment and cleaning products were available became the order of the day.

As ever, school leaders and their staff rose to the challenge. Schools reopened, and more than 80 per cent of pupils in England returned in the first week of term. In Oxfordshire, the reported figure was even higher, at more than 85 per cent of pupils. Many pupils welcomed the return to the familiar routine.

Fortunately, primary schools were spared involvement in the examations fiasco that cost the jobs of two senior officials and, once again, demonstrated that planning and foresight were not a strength of this Government. This should have proved a warning for the future.

Whatever has caused the spike in cases in early September, whether cross-infections from those returning from abroad, a relaxing of social distancing, or the encouragement for workplaces to be reopened, schools and primary schools in particular will have another round of changes to cope with, should a return to wider-community, or even national, lockdowns be imposed.


SADLY, if the autumn upturn in Covid-19 infections prompts a similar lockdown, it seems likely that the burden will fall on head teachers once again, and most heavily on the heads of small schools.

Will the help that they receive this autumn be any better than at the start of the pandemic in the spring? One would hope so, but the chain of command still seems as fractured as the school system that it serves.

Now is the time for dioceses to ensure that their smaller schools receive the help, support, and guidance that they need. Any failure to do so will almost certainly lead to exhaustion among teachers, and perhaps a wave of retirements among head teachers. Vacancies for primary-school head teachers advertised over the summer, and tracked by TeachVac, are already significantly ahead of the levels usually seen over the quiet summer months. What starts as a trickle of fed-up head teachers could all too easily become a flood of departures.

Filling even the existing vacancies may not be easy in the present climate, and must be a matter for serious concern. On the other hand, thanks to the employment situation, finding classroom teachers and those willing to enter the profession will almost certainly be easier than at any point since the banking crisis of 2008.

Teacher unions are clear about the steps that those in charge need to take. The National Education Union wrote to the Secretary of State early in September, outlining the following actions that it wanted taken to help schools:

  • a more widely available and efficient test, track, and trace programme;

  • the reporting of all school outbreaks, including causes, steps taken, and lessons learnt;

  • a programme of regular asymptomatic testing of school staff and older secondary students;

  • the monitoring of ventilation levels in schools and compulsory use of masks in areas of higher proximity;

  • a programme that enables clinically extremely vulnerable staff to work from home;

  • more funding to help schools reduce class sizes, mobilising supply and younger teachers to teach them;

  • more funding to develop more space to enable social distancing.

I would add the need for a national approach to distance learning and ensuring that the gap between the richest and poorest in society is not worsened by the effects on our education system.

The Church of England remains a powerful voice in education and, apart from the teacher associations, constitutes the largest pressure group for small schools in England. Now is the time to stand up for these schools, their pupils, and all the staff who work in them.

This year should have been a happy year of celebration in education. It must not be remembered as the year that our school system failed to meet the needs of our children, despite the heroic efforts of all the staff.


Professor John Howson is a LibDem county councillor in Oxfordshire, and chair of TeachVac, a national jobs board for teacher vacancies.

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