You’ve got a lot on and it looks as though it’s getting on top of you. If you need some peace and quiet to think, Tallis-the-building has got that. Tallis-the-school, however, is trying to keep itself going.
Let me tell you about the building first. There are so few people here that any movement catches my eye. I looked up yesterday to see a colleague going into one of the blocks. She turned and looked wistfully at the empty concourse before heading into the dark to lead a live A-level lesson. She’s lost family in the virus and may have been thinking about that, but she looked like she was hearing what I hear, the hollow sound of a building holding its breath.
Teachers laugh about school without children being peaceful and tidy, but it’s not new. Anyone who comes in to work in the holidays hears a silence, but it’s different to this silence. Holiday silence is about taking a breath, settling and regrouping ready for the next foray. This silence is different, an absence, not a breather. It’s as if the bricks, the glass and the mighty steel frames are asking what’s happened? Where are they?
We know where they are, but it isn’t here. So I’m wondering about what it’ll sound like when they’re back, and trying to analyse what I’m missing. Noise and busy-ness obviously. The particular sound of the little crossroads outside my office at lesson change contrasting with the purring motor of the main office next door; the racket of 11RA seizing and gathering for afternoon tutor and the Deaf children talking and signing as they go for support. The personal leitmotif of a colleague’s keys and whistle, of another’s heels and the clatter of the fire door against my wall because the doorstop’s in the wrong place.
The work we’re doing at the moment is all about maintaining the bones of a school: checking children are OK, sending work, teaching lessons where we can and sorting out work to keep people going. Governance, budgets, teacher recruitment for September. We’re just about holding it together under the circumstances and we’re waiting to hear what happens next. We’ll hear it from you, Mr Williamson, but we’ll hear it from the children too.
And there’s the problem. Schools are designed to be full of bustle, even a bit squashed in parts. They’re designed to be community crucibles in which children learn how to deal with themselves and others. Schools are where society looks after its young until they’re old enough to look after themselves, and we do it in batches. Social distancing is the opposite of what we do and the infrastructure is all against it.
Practically speaking, we could keep children 2m apart in class if we had 10 (out of 30) to a standard classroom. We’d be hard pressed to do it in the corridors and we could probably only feed 60 at once. Children would have to be kept indoors all day to enforce it, being taken out for walks occasionally. We could do this – we could do whatever it takes - but we could only do it for a small number. Even on a giant site like ours that would perhaps be 500 at most – 25%. Which 25%?
Lockdown’s five weeks old now and it's hard, very hard for some. We need to remember why we’re doing it and take care that our next actions are measured and rational. Life will never be the same again and we can’t make up the time we’re losing to Covid-19. We mustn’t unpick the good that’s been done by our unusual national self-discipline and we must especially guard against controversy-as-an-antidote-to-boredom that panics shaky politicians into making bad decisions. This disease kills people who are unprepared, and both our national health and National Health remain at the mercy of national unreadiness.
Whatever happens to bring us out of this will have a cost, which we’ll pay for a long time. Some children will learn less than they expected over the course of their school careers, but if we get it right they’ll have the rest of their lives to learn in. If we get it wrong, some of them, and their teachers, won’t.
There are 53 Thankful Villages in England and Wales who lost no one in the Great War. There are tens of thousands of villages and towns who lost people, singly or in big numbers, whole street-fulls in the Blitz, of course. Whatever happens next, we need our schools to come through this Thankful. We need our young people for a better future. We need to keep them safe now.
Take care, Mr Williamson.
Yours in hope