John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.
Most scoops come from a leak, or from being in the right place at the right time. The Daily Mail’s devastating exposé of the thinking of the National Education Union on arrangements for resisting a return to work was in plain sight on the union’s YouTube channel and could more or less be copied out.
Joint General Secretary, Kevin Courtney, said, “We’ll be talking about putting things on social media saying, This school is putting lives at risk – and we’ll be threatening heads with that.” His colleague Dr Mary Bousted cautioned, “I am going to trust you to keep what is obviously going to be confidential, confidential. If we are going to tell you what’s going on, we have to trust your sense not to spill the beans – when it is clearly a negotiating position.” Oops…
The NEU’s largest predecessor, the National Union of Teachers, had a history of closed and secret meetings at which the hard Left could accuse governments and moderate members of whatever came to mind. At annual conferences they would move to exclude the press. The tactic was in frequent use at the time of the union’s notorious 1995 conference, where intimidation forced David Blunkett – who is blind – to take refuge in a cupboard.
Dr Bousted’s contribution to free and frank exchange included reference to “…reception and Year 1 pupils, who are mucky, who spread germs, who touch everything, who cry, who wipe their snot on your trousers or on your dress…” True, children of this age have no concept of social distancing – how can they? – some are indeed unhygienic, and there are accidents.
But to describe the whole population of five and six year olds in these terms is unrealistic and an insult to parents. Teachers’ postings on social media show that they are honestly, and justifiably, worried about the risks to them and their families of an unsafe return to work. These are not the caricatures invented and insulted by the likes of Katie Hopkins, but hardworking people who are rightly concerned about their and their families’ health. Cold War rhetoric “… no negotiation is negotiation…” – does not represent these people. I expected better from Courtney, but congratulations to the Mail.
In the meantime, the hit to education from the pandemic gets worse. Cancelling exams has led to many secondary pupils simply giving up, and my usually busy schedule of free teaching has been reduced to helping the pupils of a Spanish friend with phrasing and pronunciation in English. A home tutor told me last week that they had had to call police to take three children into emergency care due to neglect. One, who had not been able to get out of bed, was taken straight to hospital. The government’s forced relaxation of local authority responsibilities for care – forced, because it is impossible to meet them – shows that the system is, at best, on the verge of collapse. Holding out for another ten days will be a challenge.
As I write, I see that the Mail has an admission from Dr Bousted that she “gets it wrong sometimes.” Putting it down to northern bluntness, but returning to the attack with a statement that the Prime Minister should “reap the whirlwind”. The person she should be dealing with is Gavin Williamson, who has not put a foot wrong so far, and has shown himself to be open to constructive discussion to find a way out of the crisis.