If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
I’m happy with the first verse which brings me succour. The chances of my ever looking too good or talking too wise are vanishingly small at the best of times and hopeless now when the guidance I get changes each sixty-second minute. I’ll steer clear of the third and fourth verses abut gambling and being a man, but the second part of the second verse is helpful, situated as we are in the middle of an almighty fight between the DfE and the teacher associations and unions.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
A word on nomenclature here. Unions are precisely that. They are affiliated to the TUC and exist to get the best working conditions for their members commensurate with the job actually being done. I’ve been a member of both the big teachers’ unions: the NASUWT because I qualified in Birmingham and worked in the north-east, both NASUWT-dominated areas. I was a member of the NUT (now NEU) when I worked in London in the 90s, because that was stronger there/here. I was appointed a Deputy Head by John Dunford, and dragooned into membership of SHA, the Secondary Heads Association, of which he became General Secretary and which later became ASCL. I held office in ASCL and have come to know office-holders in the other unions: all good people, all committed to children and schools.
One problem in education is that the same organisations end up trying to speak for schools, teachers and children. This is confusing and it’s why the Charted College of Teaching is so important. The CCT should be able to work tirelessly to improve teaching without having to foreground protecting jobs and improving working conditions. Unions can think about those while the DfE then runs the schools in the way that the nation thinks best for children and all our futures.
It’s a pity that it doesn’t quite work like this. The CCT is young but strong. It will play the part of the medical Royal Colleges for us in the future. The unions are trying to protect their members’ physical health in a global pandemic – and trying to get someone to speak for children. The department are trying to keep schools open no matter what.
While a three-legged stool is extremely stable (even according to the Foreign Office, you’d think they had other things to worry about), a two-legged stool is a ladder to nowhere and the one-legged version is just Gavin Williamson hopping off as fast as he can. Despite the significant collective brain power available in the teacher associations and the Chartered College, the department prefers – or is forced – to make predictable doctrinaire pronouncements that don’t move at the speed of the virus. Of course it is better for children to be at school but that’s only true while it can be done safely, which has to include the safety of the adults who look after them.
I was a member of ASCL executive for four years and I take my hat off to Geoff Barton and his colleagues trying to steer a typically moderate course through this hurricane. ASCL and the Chartered College are right about the questions that need answering: what did we learn about infection rates once schools were fully re-opened in September? What is the risk to children and teachers of different ages, in school, now? Why not vaccinate all school staff immediately after NHS staff and keep schools open that way? To which we have to add: what is to be done about the department’s new focus on poverty, disadvantage and children’s mental health in the immediate, medium and long-term? And why, oh why will no-one make a sensible decision about exams in 2021?
I know that children and teachers don’t come very high in the government’s priorities but it has to be possible to do better than this. Shouting at schools through a megaphone then running off and hiding behind a curtain for a few days, releasing the press attack-dogs when the unions patiently explain why it can’t be done that way then bellowing another, contradictory, muffled message a couple of days later that has to be reacted to all over again is not good for any of us.
Mr Williamson, work with schools. Work with teachers. Work with those of us who have devoted ourselves to this corner of the nation’s vineyard for years and let’s try to sort it out peacefully together. If you can’t, then hand over the job to someone who really can keep their head.
Hoping the New Year gets happier.