James Kirkup

The country’s biggest teaching union would deny kids their education

The country’s biggest teaching union would deny kids their education
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Britain’s first lockdown hammered our kids. Being away from school for months widened the educational gap between rich and poor and harmed the prospects and wellbeing of children from low-income homes.

Knowing that, what do you call people who want to close schools again? Here’s the punchline, although it’s not funny: teachers. Or more accurately, teachers’ unions.

You might have missed this on a grim Saturday afternoon, but even before Boris Johnson had confirmed Lockdown 2, the National Education Union was calling for schools to be included. That would mean another month (at least) away from school for millions of kids, followed by reduced schooling.

‘The Government should include all schools in proposals for an immediate national lockdown and as a minimum be preparing for school rotas at the end of that period,’ the union said.

Yes, the country’s biggest teaching union wants to close schools and deny kids a proper education.

The union claims this is because schools increase Covid transmission. In this, the NEU is apparently in possession of better scientific evidence than the Government’s Sage panel, which has not called for school closures.

One reason for this is that Sage is mindful of the social costs of closing schools. Another is that the scientists - unlike the NEU - are not sure if schools are a driver of additional infections: it “is still not clear to what extent (if any) schools magnify transmission in communities rather than reflect the prevalence within the community.”

If that question is still unclear, there is less doubt about the damage school closures cause to poor kids. And the evidence for that comes from teachers, who are clear that the first lockdown harmed low-income kids more than better-off classmates.

That’s what teachers told the National Foundation for Educational Research for its work assessing the impact of lockdown:

  • ‘Over half of teachers estimate that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has widened.’
  • ‘Teachers in the most deprived schools are over three times more likely to report that their pupils are four months or more behind in their curriculum learning than teachers in the least deprived schools.’

Given that teachers themselves are so clear that shutting down schools harms the children they devote their lives to helping, it seems reasonable to wonder here how many of the NEU’s 500,000 members actually support its demand to close schools. It also seems fair to speculate that, by insisting schools will stay open, the government is more in tune with some teachers than the union that supposedly represents them.

Closing schools to most pupils is not something that the country’s leading scientific experts on the virus are asking for. And teachers say closing schools harms poor kids. Yet the union that claims to speak for teachers is demanding that schools close.

Given the evidence of the harm that locking down schools again would do to, any other group making that call would be excoriated as a malign force in national life – and, most likely, ignored. The NEU should be treated in exactly that manner.

The Johnson Government is very evidently capable of U-turns and retreats. It has made many mistakes in handling this pandemic, including in the spring when it failed to prioritise reopening schools. It will doubtless make more mistakes in the dark months ahead. We can only hope that retreating on schools and listening to the malevolent National Education Union won't be one of them.