Mark Lehain is the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.
It was confirmed this week that the vast majority of children in England will not be back in school this academic year. The news caused huge disappointment with my own kids, and I’m sure they weren’t the only ones to wish it had been otherwise.
We could argue about the reasons why government couldn’t get more schools to open to more children this side of the summer holidays, but it’s more important now to plan for a smooth start to the next academic year in September.
And we really do have to get cracking on this.
September may seem a way off, but teachers need time to prepare for the mass return of pupils in the new world of Covid-19. The summer holidays take up about half the time left, and parts of the country close in the middle of July – so they need to know now what to get in place.
There is also the matter of the unions to consider. Their actions to date have not been driven simply by the safety of their members and pupils. I was attacked by teachers for pointing this out. However, more evidence has emerged since, confirming that their public stance was only ever a negotiating position, and that they celebrated the Government U-turn as a victory.
So for the education of our children and the sanity of our teachers, the Government must now provide firm leadership on the issue of reopening. I would like to see them announce that all schools should take in all pupils from the start of September, with clear guidance issued regarding what social distancing measures are considered sufficient to be safe-enough, and what kind of curriculum and other provision should be in place.
They should also instruct heads to plan for one or two clearly laid out scenarios other than a full opening, to allow as many children and teachers as possible to have a smooth start if local or national infection rates are such that a full opening is not feasible.
The biggest single complaint from the education sector during this whole period has been the last-minute and inconsistent nature of advice from the Department for Education. This was perhaps forgivable with the sudden shutdown, and understandable for the recent U-turn – but it would be unforgivable to not give schools and families clarity over the future for a third time.
The gap between the educational haves and have-nots was starting to close, and the current situation is going to blow it wide open again. But on top of this, an entire decade’s worth of school improvement is at stake. Activists are already planning to take advantage of the recent chaos to achieve things that they thought were lost after December’s election.
For teaching unions, progressive educationalists and others, the coronavirus crisis has provided a huge opportunity to achieve what they’ve wanted for years: an end to the testing and inspection regime that they hate with a passion. 2020 was an unavoidable write-off, but they’ve already got their eyes on the prize of scrapping SATs, league tables, and Ofsted inspections again for 2021 – and doing away with them for good thereafter.
If there is any disruption to the next school year, you can bet they will argue that exams, inspections, and accountability measures can’t be brought back properly. And once they’ve achieved that, they will claim that schools and pupils are no worse off for them, and that they should be done away with forever.
Of course, they won’t come out and say this up front. They’ll encourage their supporters to not engage with planning for September – just like they did this term. They’ll then claim that staff weren’t consulted properly on risk assessments and the like, and start quoting the “independent SAGE” or section 44 of the Employment Rights Act or other bits of legislation. Anything to slow down the readmission of pupils sufficiently to then be able to argue that normality can’t return in terms of accountability and exams.
This is why the Government needs to rally the nation now to the mission of schooling our kids properly once more come the autumn. Tell schools and families exactly what is expected of them. Use the genius of the education sector to remove any barriers to this. Pre-empt the political hurdles the unions and others will throw up, and back headteachers when they go to open and are challenged by activists.
It’s what European and other governments have done, and we can do the same here in the UK. Our pupils, parents, and professionals deserve nothing less – and there’ll be a political price to pay if we don’t pull it off too. Let’s get to it!