“Nothing is built on stone; All is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.” Jorge Luis Borges
Memory of another time, not so long ago, has washed away… I can not remember what my school day used to be like but I long for it all the same. The daily grind of lessons, routines, systems and purpose have dissolved into this new quagmire.
What we have now is unfaithful to the original
I paraphrase Borges and as I do hundreds of thousands of children are missing out on the type of education they so desperately need. Some, so much more than others.
There is a passion, loss and betrayal in this new normal. I believe that schools have been led to this point through incompetent leadership from the government and at times the self obsessed dogma of the unions. None have been fully able to understand the realities faced by school leaders and their staff . Even worse, they gave no alternative working plan to support schools to help families and children missing their education. They, as is so often the case when dealing with large organisations, only had opposing rhetoric which in this case has been as good as nothing.
The government have completely misjudged every important step they have taken. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but when schools were shut to all but vulnerable and key worker children there had been weeks leading up to this point in which it was inevitable what was going to happen. When it did confusion reigned, a lack of clarity and guidance that ignored the science and updated more times than it was possible to keep up with. They had done nothing to prepare and decided that every school was the same in their response, that is how little they understand their education system. They failed to listen to the profession; they failed to react to the obvious; they failed to put a working plan in place that made sense to people who worked in schools. They failed to support schools context. Worse still, announcements were leaked, they pretended to have plans but clearly didn’t and they passed the buck time and time again. As Vic Godard headteacher of Passmore Academy said on Radio 4, “I love a good headline!” because that is all we seem to get. Quite frankly, I am not sure they could have done a worse job. Another classic example of trust being so low that rather than give credence to school leaders to come up with a plan they think they know better and when it becomes very apparent that they do not they hand the mess over; they simply hold up their hands and turn their back on us, with a wink to the press pack waiting in the wings. A national disgrace which will need proper scrutiny when the right time comes. I was challenged that we did not have to follow government guidance.
Only someone who does not run a school would say such a thing. You stray from that guidance and you spend the rest of your time trying to explain it to a divided and bitter community. We had to follow that guidance. The guidance was wrong but we had little choice. Why did they not just set out a set of principles and ask schools to come up with contextual and local solutions? We know why… there is little to no faith in our education system from the current government- this is historical and it clearly has no future either.
I also believe that the unions have got much wrong especially in the early days of lock-down. Interestingly, having spoken to a Union Rep now I was really pleased at the honesty of their reflection and an acknowledgement that this was true as a first response. Whereas I believe, in national interests, they should have worked with schools to find solutions they may have helped create even bigger divides. In the early days of the proposed reopening many school leaders were left feeling isolated. They still had to make plans, move forward and keep everyone safe but they also felt absolutely alone in this mammoth task. Unions pressured school leaders under the name of safety and I understand this and answered every single question they posed (17 pages long!). But, some did not stop at this. Some union representatives played school leaders for fools creating more pressure and forcing a divide between good honest leaders and their staff- all of who are professionals who work to serve their community. They were not on the front line dealing with the reality. In fact many, in truth, seemed to be consultants on twitter harking back to good old union diction or anonymous accounts. Though I acknowledge many union representatives are at their core about the fair treatment of their members I also see too many that hold progress back in the name of some long forgotten ideal that may have meant something in the 1970’s. It was teachers trying to digest the message of ‘don’t do what the government has asked’ and ‘DEFY’, alongside their professional commitment, the MASSIVE needs of their community, their own anxieties and their moral compass that needed a progressive union the most. Whilst I hear some union people pat themselves on their back hailing a victory we look out into our communities and see what is to come. As much as I blame the government for the Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 decision… I also blame aspects of union rhetoric for not helping us find solutions for those children who now have nothing at all in terms of a chance to be back in school. Just a void- created by some who pretend that they are on the side of the worker, caught up in their own self importance but they, like the government, fail to see the faces in all of this. It reminds me of the People’s Front Engage in Frantic Discourse scene in Monty Pythons Life of Brian.
Many families need their schools and right now they are the unseen victims. Many do not have the luxury and privilege of wealth in terms of schooling and I can only see the divide widening to an abyss for too many. They need a united approach. Unions working with school leaders to find solutions for those in greatest need. Schools are the answer and should never be the barrier. The abuse I got when I raised my concerns regarding the unions was far more sensitive and vicious than what I get for questioning the government (Possibly my own echo chamber reverberating back). I am not sure what this tells me? Surely to have an opinion, even one we disagree with, is at the heart of what a union stands for? I hope any who read this can put me right without resorting to threats or not being able to see the bigger problems we now face in education. They may feel I am wrong but I believe many also agree with me. Just arguing that it was about a safe return is not enough because many returned on the date set by the government as safely as those who did a week later…
Accountability goes up and down and the unions need it as much as anyone else. That’s how we make progress. That accountability has to come from its members. I fully believe that an organisation changes for the better when it is able to look in the mirror and not like what it sees but has the guts to confront it all the same.
I speak as someone whose father was a shop steward for the Milk Marketing Board for many years. The Strawbs, Part of the Union, a constant Sunday afternoon backdrop. A life long Labour voter and supporter. I want to be part of a wise and progressive union. I absolutely support the need to ensure that staff and children are as safe as they can be and leaders need to be accountable (Appraisal based on outcomes in lock down anyone!?!) but this was NEVER the time to play sweeping power games. I am proud to serve England’s education system and I want it to be the best there can be in national interests. I hate myself for what I am saying but I’d hate myself more for not saying it.
Altruism within our political and educational systems is something we all hope for and need – more now than ever. How are the people who have the most power to make a positive difference to the life of a child acting now? I know what my school is doing, despite huge barriers set up by the challenges of Covid19… I could not be prouder of my teachers and my staff.
As much as I feel the unions got it wrong though- it is nothing compared to our government who have been akin to white noise trying to improve silence. They are like severe tinnitus- constant, irritating and of no use. They have once again proved that they do not know how to work with a key national service which is a vital cog in getting our country moving forward. They have ghosted decisions, avoided proper scrutiny and acted with little strategic thought about the longer term impact. Their greatest crime though is the absolute contempt they hold the teaching profession in, at a time when teachers, staff and school leaders have been the most flexible, creative and steady support they could be, adapting in moments and constantly bringing the focus back to children and their communities… The greatest barriers have come from the heart of a government clearly out of its depth in this crisis. The inquiry into their response to school closures (as well as many aspects of this pandemic) will be long and damning but it won’t make a damn difference to families who needed strong central national leadership right now.