Brendan O’Neill

Teaching unions, not Boris, are the reckless ones

Teaching unions, not Boris, are the reckless ones
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The National Education Union, the largest teaching union in the UK, has branded Boris Johnson 'reckless'. What's he done now? He said Britain's schools should start to reopen in June. 

This is how weird politics has become in Covid-hit Britain. The 'Evil Tories' want working people, especially teachers, to get back to work, while the unions are saying: 'No, thanks. It's too dangerous.'

Our apparently uncaring government wants kids to mix together once again and to get back to the incredibly serious business of learning. And the supposedly loving left is pushing back and pretty much insisting that schools should remain closed and kids should stay stuck at home. Political life has been turned upside down.

Boris made his schools comment in his address to the nation on Sunday night, the one that Oxbridge-educated journalists across the land – well, in the London media bubble – pretended not to understand. As part of the phased easing of lockdown (try to keep up, commentators), he said that next month we will hopefully be able to 'get primary pupils back into schools, in stages, beginning with reception, Year 1 and Year 6'.

To me, this sounds like the opposite of reckless. He isn't saying 'let's throw open the school gates'. He's proposing a staggered return to schooling, starting with the very young. This is a great idea. It will lift children out of their isolation and it will free parents up to return to work.

And yet still the National Education Union isn't happy. Its general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, said Boris's comments were 'nothing short of reckless'. She said we still don't know if it's safe for kids and teachers to return to schools. We need to think about 'the potential spread of the virus in schools', she said.

Two points on this. First, officials are thinking about that. That's why the discussion is focusing on a phased return to schooling and on possibly having smaller classes. Secondly, isn't it a little irresponsible for a teaching-union boss to talk up the dangers of going back to school? Won't that ramp up parental anxiety and children's fears even more than they already have been?

Dr Bousted talks about schools as if they might be hotbeds of disease. She has even suggested that we should follow China's example of spraying kids with disinfectant before they enter the school gates. Other union officials have wondered how children will remain socially distanced while at school. Answer: they won't. They're children. They touch and hug and fight.

I think union officials are the ones being reckless, not Boris. Their depiction of school life as hazardous will spread unnecessary fear. It is also scientifically questionable. A team of researchers at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health at University College London has pointed out that there is limited evidence that shutting schools slows the spread of Covid-19.

However, there's plenty of evidence, they say, that school closures have adverse effects on society, including 'loss of parental productivity, transmission [of Covid] from children to vulnerable grandparents, loss of education, harms to child welfare, particularly amongst the most vulnerable pupils'.

Our shutdown of schools is historically unprecedented. Such a huge break in one of the most important things a civilised society does – educate the next generation – has never occurred before in modern times. Sure, online teaching is being carried out, but everyone knows that isn't the same.

Children need engagement. They need their friends. They need the leadership and inspiration that teachers can provide. And they need to learn. It is simply wrong to wrest children away from one another, and away from learning, for a long period of time.

Have teaching unions forgotten that teaching is a vocation? Teaching is one of the most important things an adult can do. It is central to the socialisation of the next generation and to the good moral health of society more broadly. Surely it is acceptable to take a few risks as part of this vocation? It isn't reckless to propose the reopening of schools. But it is reckless to abandon children to isolation and a lack of learning.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

Topics in this articleSociety