May I set out a few thoughts on the surprise announcement to finish this term a day early, and how irritable everyone has been about it?
First, the government needs to be pulling out all the stops to tackle Covid. Whether you think they have or not is up to you. Whether you think they can or not is more worrying. However, like the geography of Derbyshire, that is not the purpose of this piece.
Second, it is perfectly legitimate for a government to have a view on the purpose of education, a national curriculum, an inspection process and a fair funding mechanism. Whether or not this can all be achieved smoothly when the focus for the last 20 years has been on a spurious ‘autonomy’ for Headteachers is more worrying. However, like the poetry of Thomas Hardy, that is not the purpose of this piece.
Third, it is reasonable that decisions about schools will have to be made quickly in a pandemic. Whether the Secretary of State’s pandemic-handling so far gives one confidence for future decision-making is worrying. However, like the exams debacle, the laptop promise, the food vouchers, the BBC lessons, rotas and the October firebreak, that too is not the purpose of this piece.
What is, then? you cry, put us out of our misery, would you, please? No, the focus of this piece is how schools have once again been cast as shiftless villains only interested in a day off, in some parts of the media, this week. Given we’ve been working flat out, how did this happen? Might I try to shed light?
No one asked for a day off. Unions, professional associations and other groups made the point severally and singly with evidence and justification that it was no surprise that when schools reopened, infection rates among children rose. Therefore, once Christmas was declared open and restrictions lifted from the day before Christmas Eve to the day after Boxing Day, schools spotted an issue. Covid-infected or Covid-carrying children may be a risk to older people. As Christmas is invariably spent in multi-generational close proximity, young people may well endanger the health of older people. Gran and Max may have missed each other desperately since the start of lockdown, but it would be a pity if the visit had to be summarily cancelled, made her ill or worse. Therefore, schools’ tribunes said, since we are all capable of remote learning now, had you thought about making the week beginning 14th December a remote learning week and protecting everyone?
A further complication was schools’ responsibilities for contact tracing. If the end of term broke into the 6-day incubation period, schools would need to be making phone calls about infections on Christmas Eve, or later. This required schools in some way to be open to do that – even if it was just the Head, or the Business Manager, or whoever has been in charge of the process.
And now we get to the bit that enrages the public. Heads said: everyone is exhausted and working over the actual Christmas Eve-Day-Boxing-Day stretch is hard to bear. Some of us (not me) haven’t had much of a break since March. Is there a way of avoiding being responsible for contact tracing all over Christmas?
The solution, declaring Friday 18 December to be an in-service training day must have seemed like a reasonable one to the government. We’re not giving a week of remote learning because everyone has had enough of that, Mr Williamson might have thought – though I suspect it's Gibb the Schools Minister who does the thinking at Sanctuary Buildings. Friday the 18th removes schools from contact tracing over the actual heart of the festivities. Excellent plan! So why was this not met with general applause?
Well, the difficulty is in the nature of training days. These are not invented on the hoof and they are not meant to be a time when everyone catches up on their marking. They are for actual training to improve classroom practice, planned as part of the school’s improvement planning over the course of the year. They are to be taken seriously. If the training is not done that day, then it is acceptable for the equivalent number of hours to be made up at other points in the year, in planned after-school training time. What the DfE should have done is to declare that this Inset day is a one-off under extraordinary circumstances, unlike others, with other rules. What they have done is to tie everyone up in knotted red tape.
Worse, lots of schools – especially primaries, I suspect - had planned some appropriately-distanced festivities which couldn’t easily be reorganised. We don’t do a lot of that here. The tree’s up, Christmas Lunch is on Tuesday, I’ve recorded a verse of the song we’ll broadcast on Thursday and I’m writing this in a Christmas-y jumper wearing antlers, but that‘s as far as it goes. But now I’m embarrassed that the nation thinks we’re slackers. ‘Teachers say not enough time off’ shrieks the headline.
Everybody’s tired. Children of all ages and dispositions have found the last 15 weeks exhausting and so have the adults around them. The zoning separation of year groups eats away at the teaching day and at any semblance of freedom that the children had. This is hard for adolescents to bear who are wired for developing independence in these years: tempers are frayed. It is immeasurably worse for those who’ve had to isolate, some of them, by the cruel hand of fate, for weeks on end. We understand that many parents are struggling. Some heads and teachers have said regrettable things on social media – but that’s tired human nature broadcasting out loud in the modern world.
Which brings me back to the crackle of interference. Fourth (for those of you who haven’t fallen off the chair with boredom yet) it is shoddy for a government to conduct business by press briefing. Whether the current leaders of a parliament which used to be the model and envy of the world can get over this is debatable. However, like Paine’s Rights of Man, that is not the purpose of this piece.
I trust that these extraordinary circumstances will end some day. Until then, we need to look after each other and try to be kind. So, finally, fifth: it is a pity that so much of the media can’t abide teachers and attack schools at the drop of a hat. However, like the apparently perfectly acceptable decision of Eton to close early to protect families at Christmas, that is not the purpose of this piece. But perhaps it should be?