2020, a year like no other, has caused us to need to thank so many people. Nurses, doctors, police officers, ambulance drivers, vaccine developers have all done their upmost to keep us safe. And teachers.
Teachers who have kept schools open, have kept children safe and have kept doing their job when most of the country was shut down. Teachers who have been let down so many times over the last twelve months. As the son of two people who work in education, one a state secondary school teacher, the other a consultant, and as someone who would’ve taken their GCSEs last summer, I’m aware of what our educators have been through over the last twelve months. They deserve our gratitude.
Throughout lockdown, many schools taught their lessons online and all stayed open for key worker and vulnerable children, again with no clear plan from government on how to do so. Teachers looked after other families’ children remotely whilst simultaneously looking after their own at home, without any additional support being provided. Pressure and expectation were coming at them from all angles, from the government, from parents and carers as well as from the media. For the vast majority of school staff, the Easter holidays weren’t a break. They were a time to catch up on work, for leadership teams to prepare for the summer term and for schools to remain open to ensure that key worker children were looked after.
The schools didn’t close and the staff didn’t stop
The summer brought exam season, initially with schools being left in the dark as to what the exams, or the results, would look like. Schools were forced to prepare for every eventuality but with no clarity about what would actually happen. As a Year 11 student at the time, this lack of clarity was immensely stressful for us all. We didn’t know what grades to expect, what the grades would be based on or what our grades would mean for our future. This lack of clarity shouted loud and clear when the A-level results fiasco reared its head. Suddenly schools, again with no prior warning or support, were told that students would be given grades based on a government developed algorithm system.
A system which did not work
Students had grades that were vastly disproportionate to what staff had predicted, grades which were biased towards schools with students from prosperous backgrounds in prosperous areas with widespread implications for students and universities. To make matters even worse, GCSE results day came around and Gavin Williamson still continued to maintain that the failed algorithm would be used. Then a typical u-turn when schools were told that teacher-assessed grades would be used instead. This last minute attitude maximised the stress of students, like myself, and school staff who couldn’t do anything to help students affected by the fiasco, yet in many cases unfairly picked up the blame.
September arrived and with it the return to being in school. This was a prospect many staff and students nervously anticipated, which was understandable given the limited guidance on ‘re-opening’ (they were never closed) provided by the Department of Education. All the required preparation to open safely had to be carried out by school leadership teams, the vast majority of whom wouldn’t have had much more than a few days’ worth of headspace away from work since February. Nevertheless, schools reopened and students went back to learning in person, only now with staff having many more duties to fulfil on top of their teaching. No additional support was given nor were any thanks, yet school staff carried out their jobs regardless because they knew it was needed to keep children in school and that was the priority. As ever, staff put their students’ well-being ahead of their own and that of their family.
The second lockdown and a pay freeze!
When the second lockdown came, schools were told to stay open whilst everything else shut. Despite the rising case numbers, year groups isolating and falling staff numbers due to illness or the need to look after their family, schools kept going and teachers were expected to keep calm and carry on. They continued to put themselves at risk for their students. What were they rewarded with? A three year pay freeze. A three year pay freeze which was announced whilst the government was preparing to give MPs a three grand pay rise.
The government launched the much vaunted “National Tutoring Programme” which was supposed to help schools and pupils catch up on missed schooling. As shown in Tracy Lawrence’s article in December this was a typical government outsourcing to private organisations incapable of delivering what was needed. Only 11 out of the 32 organisations involved were not-for-profit.
The story doesn’t get any prettier. December saw schools threatened with legal action by the government for trying to take the safety and protection of their staff and students into their own hands. Not just this, senior leaders were required to remain on call until Christmas Eve to enable track and trace to continue.
One may question whether this should be the responsibility of Headteachers or government appointed Serco? Serco, whose consultants are reportedly on £7000 a day and whose employees were given a £100 bonus.
Mass testing and teaching?
Then the bombshell of mass testing was released – just hours before my school closed and for some schools this came after they had wished their students farewell for Christmas. Mass testing of all students and staff in school from January. Yet again, a last minute proposal that requires staff to ‘volunteer’, train for and supervise the testing, whilst simultaneously teaching or supporting school operations. It requires additional volunteers to be recruited, administer or supervise the tests, with no plan as to where they should come from, only that they mustn’t be teachers – oh, or need any safeguarding checks!
Is this the responsibility of schools or the string of Tory-linked organisations on multi million pound contracts to deliver a country-wide mass testing programme. Anyone remember Operation Moonshot or the 10 million promised tests per day? Schools are already at breaking point. There is no capacity in terms of space or people and this plan poses an unrealistic expectation that requires staff members to give up yet more time that they simply don’t have.
The chaos now continues into January as we see teaching and support staff unions pull together to resist a return to school for primaries and early years providers. Not because they want to but because they feel that they have a moral duty and responsibility to keep their pupils, their families and their staff safe. This is what the scientists have recommended, not once but on several occasions and without a government willing to act, it seems that the unions are stepping in to ensure that common sense finally prevails.
And teaching is personal for me
On a personal level, the government’s handling of education over the last ten months has had an effect. Last minute decisions have caused both my parents to become apprehensive of term endings and beginnings, safe in the knowledge that announcement from government will come that they will both have to respond to in some way. Weekends for my family are now non-existent as we wait for news on a Friday or Sunday of things that my parents must work on, action and implement for Monday.
My dad, a teacher of twenty years, went into teaching as a vocation. He loves his job. The greatest reward for him, year on year, is watching his students grow, develop and leave into amazing young adults, knowing that he played a small part in that progress. To be a teacher takes something extraordinary, to be a teacher during a government crisis takes something beyond exceptional. As such, I have two messages, one for government and one for teachers.
To government my message is simple
Stop the last minute dithering, stop making plans that aren’t practical for implementation in schools and stop requesting more of school staff without providing additional support and guidance along the way. Government shouldn’t be threatening schools; it should be rewarding them. Government shouldn’t be freezing the pay of teachers; it should be increasing it. Government shouldn’t be adding to the workload of staff; it should be alleviating it. Government should be working with schools, not against them.
To teachers my message is equally as simple: thank you!
Thank you to all school staff who have done so much throughout 2020, going above and beyond what you usually do. Thank you for keeping schools open and thank you for giving up your time to make that possible. Thank you for looking after the children of our key workers, whilst doing all you can to keep your own families safe. Thank you for taking on so many extra duties and responsibilities, despite being given no additional time or resources to do so. You’ve consistently been let down by the government, yet you’ve done so much more than anyone would ever expect you to do.