Uproar in schools

Dave Lister looks at the rolling disaster that is the government’s schools and exams policy

As we approach September, the Government’s plan for all pupils in England to return to school is coming closer. On the one hand, this is a positive development because most pupils have missed a lot of schooling and it will help to relieve the burden on parents who work. On the other hand, there are clear risks of further spreading the pandemic, particularly to staff and children’s families. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine, was quoted in The Observer as saying that “our studies show that, across Europe, closing schools is the single factor most strongly associated with drops in infection rates”. The Government has however indicated that in areas of local lockdown schools could be closed.

In previous articles we have highlighted the confused performance of our Tory Government in this area with its U-turns and abandoned promises. The record of the devolved education administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has been significantly better. Perhaps this is not surprising considering that the secretary of state for education is Gavin Williamson, who has a somewhat chequered record, including the time when, as defence secretary, he thought he was Lord Palmerston and sent a warship to Ukraine, helping to ramp up tensions with Russia. He was then booted out of the cabinet by Theresa May, accused of leaking information from a National Security Council meeting, which he of course denied. This would surely have been considered a strange appointment if we had a normal government.

At the time of writing we have had a further fiasco over A-level results in England. Marina Hyde pointed out in The Guardian that Williamson only had five months to come up with an effective method for calculating grades! Instead he relied on Ofqual’s algorithm, which downgraded 40% of the marks. This unfairly advantaged private school students and hit students in disadvantaged areas disproportionately. Following an outcry from students, schools, parents and even some Tory MPs, we have had another government U-turn and teachers’ predicted grades will now be used. Similar decisions have been made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, this has created problems for universities, who will either have to create excess places or disappoint some students. Williamson, meanwhile, has given no indication as yet that he intends to resign.

Arguably it would be better to continue in September with the “bubbles” system of maybe half a class/group attending on a rota basis. Some issues worth considering are:

  • Can you enforce social distancing on children travelling to and from school?
  • Does it make sense for children from age 11 to have to wear masks in shops but not in school?
  • The Government wants schools to consider using sanctions including fines against parents if their children do not return to school. Is this justifiable? Will schools agree to do this in any case?
  • The guidance allows for “extremely clinically vulnerable” teachers to return to school. Could this be a potential death sentence?
  • Where is the Government’s Plan B to deal with the situation in the event of a spike in infection generally?

Schools will have to deal with children who are anxious after not being in school for many months, children attending a new school without the normal induction process having taken place, children who have lost family members, including parents and grandparents. There are also children whose families have been badly impacted by the financial effects of the crisis coming into school hungry, and with ill-fitting clothes and shoes tied together by tape, according to reports from teachers. The Government has put the emphasis on catching up on the work that has been missed, but many experts and practitioners believe that schools should devote a significant amount of time to pastoral work in the early stages of the return to school.

The Government is insisting on a return to normality in abnormal times in other ways. Thus, the Early Years Foundation Stage, key stage SATs tests and GCSE and A-level exams will all await students in the summer term in 2021, and performance tables will make a welcome return. The National Education Union (NEU) maintains that the SATs should not take place – a position supported by a petition with thousands of signatures – and that the examinations for secondary students should be slimmed down and modified.

Schools are also facing further financial pressures despite additional funding being made available by the Government. One school is spending an additional £1,150 a week on cleaning. There is also the cost of PPE equipment, and some schools have had to take on additional staff whilst at the same time losing income from areas such as lettings.

Any government would face a dilemma over how far they should open up schools in September, but it is difficult to have any confidence in the ability of this low calibre Tory Government, given their record since March on education and the pandemic generally, to manage the education system in England effectively over the coming period. Hopefully children in the other countries that make up the UK will fare better.

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