It’s a while since I’ve bothered you with my thoughts, so I expect you’re pleased to hear from me. I thought you’d like to know a bit more about my childhood?
I may have mentioned that my mother was a teacher, and her mother before her, und so weiter. This, combined with very fixed views on child-rearing much less common in the early 60s than they are now, lent a particular tone to my upbringing. I never had a book that reinforced gender roles or a pink toy. Dolls were out, and she once gave a present back to Santa in Robinson’s department store because it was a girlie one and took one from the bin marked Boys. (A plastic Tommy gun, a story for another day). She particularly objected to the reinforcement of middle-class values and twee-ness in children’s literature. You can imagine that I never went to Narnia, but I did smuggle school stories in when I was old enough to buy them myself.
This has obviously set me up for life pretty well but with attendant scarring. One such is that I cannot abide childish language in adults: the word ‘yummy’, for example, brings me out in a rash. It was this phobia that made me so cross all last Saturday to the extent that one of my housemates took to the cocktail handbook to find a cure. What am I blithering on about? This:
It is now up to the Government and the teaching unions to work together, along with the many teachers who are not in unions, to find solutions in the best interests of children and make this work – while doing all they can keep children and staff safe. We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school. It’s time to stop squabbling and agree a staggered, safe return that is accompanied by rigorous testing of teachers, children and families.
I could be annoyed by the inference that the teacher unions don’t represent the huge majority of teachers, or the outrageous suggestion that they – and schools – are not trying to keep children safe. I could be annoyed about the assumption that the government are foolishly relying on a vaccine: they can defend themselves. I’m absolutely incandescent about ‘squabbling’.
The Children’s Commissioner’s role is to advocate for the most vulnerable and she and her predecessors have done it admirably. It is an important and distinguished public office and a hallmark of a civilised society. So why denigrate, belittle, ridicule the efforts of the only universal service for children? Why use baby language, as if government and those who represent teachers were naughty toddlers, or just need their heads banging together, taking one to bray the other as we used to say in the peace-loving Republic of Teesside? I’d have tutted at the radio if she’d used ‘arguing’ but I wouldn’t have been grinding my teeth about it nearly a week later.
Why? There is an assumption perpetually lurking just under the surface in England that almost anyone could run schools better than teachers, that almost anyone has the best interests of children closer to their hearts than teachers and that teachers are only after long holidays and lounging around being retro-Communists. This assumption has popped its head above the grimy water in the last week, fished up by Gove, and added absolutely no nutritional value to the discussion. Primary Heads are being asked to do the impossible with such weak guidance that it is negligent. Secondaries haven’t had any guidance at all yet – and all this because the PM had to have a sound-bite a week gone Sunday rather than a plan. Were you warned, Mr Williamson?
I’m very willing to admit that this is misplaced annoyance. I warned you about my upbringing in the first paragraph. It's just a word. But to me it is a word that plays to the gallery, that treats teachers as if they were children and just need to stop being silly. That imagines that people who work with children do it because they’re immature in some way and need to be told what to do by people with proper jobs.
The teacher unions have been around for a long time. They represent an educated workforce that is professionally incapable of being fobbed off. I’ve written endlessly that teachers are both public servants and role models in society: in neither of those roles can we take instruction or information on trust without questioning it. It’s just not in our DNA. At our best, we cannot stop questioning until we reach the truth – because that’s what you want us to instil in all our children. Yes, the conversations are, I believe, very difficult for all concerned, but as they concern the health of the national children, why shouldn’t they be, Mr Williamson?
We’re nearly done for half term and we’ll be closed on Monday for the first time in ages – before being open for the rest of the week. It’s the kind of weather that would make for a lively Friday afternoon before a holiday in normal time. Our young inmates finish the week cheerfully, rushing around the daily mile today circling and chasing each other like lion cubs in the wind. Our buildings stand clean and quiet. We’re waving at a distance until we welcome them back, safely. Are you waving or drowning, Mr Williamson?