At last, the government is doing something sensible. Amid the anxiety surrounding a putative ‘second wave’ of Covid-19, the Department for Education is standing firm in its commitment to re-open schools for all year groups come September. Reassuringly, the schools minister Nick Gibb is making this a non-negotiable priority.
‘Thank you Nick Gibb’ is not something I thought I would ever say. As a member of the maligned teaching profession, I have had my fill of Tory education initiatives over the past decade: accountability, performance-related pay and exam reforms. Such distractions are now a distant memory in the dystopian world of Covid.
Teaching is a stressful job, with a poor work-life balance – but it is a vocation. On a good day, with an engaged class, teaching is a rewarding social experience. Covid-19, or rather the government’s fatal decision to lock everyone down and – almost – lock the school gates too, put paid to the enriching aspects of teaching and learning, much of which has gone ‘remote’. Where’s the fun in that? Remote is a poor proxy for learning. Understandably, some kids didn’t bother, and others do not have the technology, emotional support or physical space at home to access materials. They are being let down and social inequalities widen.
So back to school and, yes, thank you Nick Gibb.
Yet the road to full re-opening has been arduous. It has taken months of campaigning by groups such as UsforThem to reach this stage. One remaining obstacle is that of naysayers within my own profession, as represented by some unions, who are apprehensive. A shrill contribution to the TES forum, a platform for discontent, likened returning to the classroom to being ‘thrown to wolves’. Gosh, really, where do you work? Please come back Mr Chips, all is forgiven!
Of course, the world of Covid is fraught with uncertainty, and anxieties should be heeded. School staff who feel vulnerable, or who are concerned for others at home must have a voice and support. But should we be labelling schools as death traps, more Pripyat than Summerdown Comp? This rhetoric isn’t constructive, it knocks confidence and makes us depressed.
It also feeds the terror propagated by clickbait media. My least favourite weasel word in all this is ‘unprecedented’. Senior management band it around frequently: lockdown is ‘unprecedented’, distancing is ‘unprecedented’, shutting schools is ‘unprecedented’. Yikes colleagues, hang on a moment. Inhabitants of early modern European cities were routinely locked down at the first sign of plague; they were even tracked and traced with contacts consigned to designated pesthouses. Matt Hancock, I hope you are not reading this.
As for school closures, there is precedent here too. In 1957, following the ‘Asian flu’ epidemic, schools were temporarily shut in the UK, US and Ireland. This isn't widely remembered perhaps because Sputnik and an accelerated Cold War nuclear arms race are a little more arresting than shuttered schoolhouses.
Colleagues, we have been here before. Of course, Covid-19 is nothing like plague or influenza. No really, Covid is nothing like plague or influenza, both of which were deadly within a population, flu taking its toll on the young, whereas SARS-CoV-2 can cause nasty complications for the very old, to whom we also have a duty to protect.
Within the scope of history, pandemic panic and response is not ‘unprecedented’. Why should we fear educating children when the medical consensus is that they are the least likely to transmit coronavirus? Professor Mark Woolhouse, who advises SAGE, has gone on the record to state that there are no confirmed cases of a teacher contracting Covid from a school-age child.
At this point, I expose myself to accusations of recklessness and callousness. I am simply trying to balance the risk of Covid against the greater social risks of not restoring education. The sociologist, Philip Strong, reminded us that pandemics cannot be eradicated by a bio-medical magic bullet. Rather, society must break a debilitating pandemic cycle of three components: fear, explanation/moralisation and action.
In March, we encountered fear with mass hoarding of toilet rolls for the impending apocalypse. Explanation tested the limits of medical knowledge, reaching the astonishing conclusion that we are all virus carriers and morally we should stay apart. Now, we face the pandemic of mercurial (governmental) action. First, there came modelling, then enforced distancing, then testing, then expensive track and trace, then inexpensive masks, then cycling schemes, then masks again. Finally, modelling made a comeback. Bizarrely, Neil Ferguson, the nation’s official prophet of doom, has been wheeled out to speculate on whether school should be sacrificed for pubs.
Enough. None of this is going to repulse Covid from these shores. We are stoking the pandemic of fear, and so Strong’s cycle begins again. How can we escape? Only by tiring of Covid scares and moving on with our lives. Schools re-opening is integral to this process.
Who’s afraid to return to the classroom? Not me. I’m looking forward to it.
The UsforThem campaign for children to return to school normally is supported by many dedicated teachers. Those wanting to lend their voice can join UsForThem.co.uk