Melanie McDonagh

Gavin Williamson needs to stand up to the teaching unions

Gavin Williamson needs to stand up to the teaching unions
Gavin Williamson (photo: Getty)
Text settings

So, the Government has abandoned plans to bring all primary school pupils back before the summer holidays, in addition to the two cohorts who have already returned. The opposition of teaching unions and some regional authorities and mayors have seen to that. As for secondary schools, only two of their year groups are returning; no plans for the rest.

You do realise what that means, don’t you? It’ll be nearly six months off school by the time the remaining pupils get back at the beginning of September.

It’s a long time, isn’t it? And as I’ve mentioned previously, it’s an especially long time if you haven’t had any actual lessons. As everyone keeps pointing out, it’ll consolidate the existing problems of disadvantaged groups. But even for children who’ve got books in the home, it’s retrograde. My children are 13 and 16; the 16-year-old has had two physics lessons since March; my daughter has now had, I think, half a dozen maths lessons since lockdown – with an actual teacher making contact with a class online. But other than this worker-hero, she’s had no direct contact with any other teacher.

For other classes, the children are instead given work online to do via Google Classroom. Some teachers mark the work that’s submitted; some don’t. And because it’s on a screen there’s a limit to what parents can do to supervise the whole thing. The only intimation I get that my daughter is idling is an email or phone call once a half term to alert me to the fact that she hasn’t been submitting work in English, maths, science, RE, geography… all news to me. And then I get on the case.

As I’ve also remarked previously – sorry to be a bore here – this is a startling contrast with what happens in private schools. Their pupils have an actual school day with teachers teaching actual classes. If you care about social mobility, as everyone professes to, the cessation of state schooling is the biggest means of widening the gap that matters most, in education, between the fee-paying classes and the rest – not just the socially deprived.

The situation is complicated by a development that’s been underway for at least a decade now: detaching schooling from textbooks and taking it online. If children were taught from textbooks rather than printouts along with internet resources, then they’d have a chance of finding a quiet corner in their home – if they’re motivated – to get on with work. But now a great deal of all education is mediated online (even before the virus, homework was set on something called Show My Homework), so your education is limited to your access to a screen. The bad consequences of going online for schooling is something that an intelligent Education Secretary should be thinking about – did I mention my fantasy that Michael Gove could find a way to return to his old job?

Of course if your children are living on a farm, or a house in the country, or even a big garden, they’ll probably be having a lovely time outdoors for what amounts to half the year, and fair play to them. But the proportion of children enjoying a bucolic idyll is a significant multiple less than those who are using their six months off school to spend time online, go wild on the streets now that lockdown is lifted, or participate in Black Lives Matter activism by way of light relief.

If their parents are actually free to supervise them – i.e. on furlough or Universal credit – that’s one thing. But if parents are working from home or thinking of trying to return to work, then the whole scenario is altogether more challenging.

And now, some teaching unions are talking about not allowing all years to return to school even in September. Moreover, Gavin Williamson is saying that the government's catch-up for pupils who have fallen behind is going to take up to a year or more.

Tell me, someone, just what is the problem with secondary schools returning even now? The pupils are big enough to understand social distancing; they can stagger their arrival times at school; they can use sports halls or canteens for lessons; in summer they can sit outside. Granted, some pupils who live with their grandparents wouldn’t be able to come back – and some older, male teachers probably shouldn’t return; but most could.

I sympathise with those conservative commentators who rejoice that children are at home learning poetry by heart rather than having their heads stuffed with feminist takes on The Lady of Shalott and prioritising learning about the US civil rights movement over Napoleon or the French Revolution, but even so, a bit of maths and chemistry does no harm. Plus my efforts to bribe my children to learn Lays of Ancient Rome and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner haven’t really come off.

If Gavin Williamson doesn’t have the gumption to take on the unions – and plainly he doesn’t – then there’s one thing he can do, which is to give Ofsted, under its excellent head, Amanda Spielman (whom I know), a remit to examine remote teaching by schools. The disparities between the good ones and the bad ones would be, I think, startling. Actually, Ofsted should probably have been given some benchmarks and a remit to supervise what schools have been up to during lockdown right from the start, but they weren’t – thanks, Mr Williamson. But if this scary situation is to go on beyond September, we need some competent authority to supervise what schools are doing.

Written byMelanie McDonagh

Melanie McDonagh is a contributor to The Spectator.

Topics in this articleSociety