We all remember Monday, 23 March. All schools in England were closed, apart from for a very small number of children. School staff put plans in place over the course of a weekend, to try to continue to provide education for their pupils; for how long, nobody knew.
As my state secondary school, where I am headteacher, we looked at how we could move to remote teaching to provide the best education possible. Initially, we prioritised those children doing GCSE or A level coursework and then we moved to a model where all pupils received live lessons, homework, feedback and 1:1 support where possible. We experienced many setbacks. We had to learn Microsoft Teams in a one-hour training session on the Friday before lockdown. Then we had to show pupils how to use it from home. We also had to hold staff meetings, governors’ meetings and live lessons from our homes – sharing devices and WiFi bandwidth with our families, just as everyone had to. We had to get school laptops to homes that had none. We made mistakes and we learned a lot. But, like thousands of schools around the country, we managed.
We remained open for the children of key workers and our most vulnerable pupils. At least we offered to. In reality, most parents chose not to send their children in. When I asked my staff for volunteers to come and be in school, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Apart from the staff who were shielding or who had underlying health conditions, they all wanted to come into school and do what they could. During the period of lockdown, the unions were vocal in promoting caution about the risk of being in school, but not every teacher or headteacher shared their safety-first philosophy.
For me and for my staff, teaching is a vocation. We have chosen to dedicate our lives to the education of children. Not only is it a real joy to work in a school and teach young people, but we know that education is the only means of providing young people with the tools they need to lead successful lives. Yes, there are stories about people who have been successful without gaining qualifications. My own son did not excel at school (that is an understatement) and caused me many sleepless nights. People told me not to worry – ‘Look at Richard Branson’, ‘Look at Alan Sugar’. But I knew well enough that for every Richard Branson there are thousands of unemployed or low paid manual or unskilled workers, who will spend their lives fighting poverty, living in poor housing and most probably suffering poor health, with little chance of escaping this cycle.
I am not suggesting that taking A levels and going to university is the only route to success. We all know that there are many other options open to young people, such as apprenticeships (if you can find out how to apply for one), industrial training schemes and excellent vocational courses at Further Education Colleges. But I am saying that all children deserve an excellent secondary education so that at the age of 18 they have the freedom to pursue a wide variety of career paths, and, if they choose, to work hard at finding a job that gives them personal satisfaction and the opportunity to flourish financially.
During lockdown I spent most working days in school with a small number of staff, including senior leaders, our Special Educational Needs team and other teachers who were keen to come in. In our view, we were key workers, doing similar work to those in the NHS and supermarkets. I retain this view and think pubs should be closed before schools – indeed, nearly everything should if there has to be a trade-off, apart from hospitals, food suppliers and other essential services. All children must come to school. We have to put the children of this country first. The more learning they lose, the more they will suffer in the future and the greater the gap will be between disadvantaged children and their peers.
Children need to take priority. Covid-19 is a far greater threat to the elderly and those with health conditions than it is to children and the vast majority of those who work in schools. Let’s keep those demographic groups safe at home. Our education system may not be perfect, but it is world class and it is the birth right of all the children of this country. Schools must open, fully, in September and it is the job of the government to ensure this happens.
Clare Wagner is the headteacher of the West London Free School