This past month has been brutal for school principals, and we must all act with caution if we do not want thousands of teachers to be another victim of this virus.
It took only nine minutes for Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to change everything. In less time than it takes to boil an egg, Williamson told parliament last month that schools would “close until further notice”, that national exams would be canceled, that schools would continue to operate vulnerable children and children of key workers – even during the Easter holidays – and that all students receiving free meals would continue to be fed.
School heads have moved from running a regular school to organizing a virtual school, daycare center and food delivery service. They had two days to turn things around. Education has never been the sole objective of schools, and it is a pity that it took a pandemic to prove it.
Ten years ago, people may have found it easier. Under Labor, education was managed by a large, well-funded ministry for children, schools and families – a title the Conservatives scoffed at for its length, and that some, like the then secretary of education, Michael Gove did not like it because he suggested that schools should focus on the well-being of children. He wanted to go back to focusing on discipline and academic discipline, the kind of words that are receiving booming applause from the right audience.
Therefore, Gove’s first act in becoming secretary of education was to change the name of the Department of Education and then set fire to almost all initiatives related to the welfare of children.
For a decade, principals have felt all the cuts to children’s services and endured every slice of cash for psychologists, nurses or a school police officer. They felt every hour they had to devote to coordinating caring for a child after the dissolution of the children’s trust. “Don’t worry,” they were told, “it’s not your job. “
Except, of course, it was. Cancel the schools and look: who’s there for the kids with protective orders? Who feeds the vulnerable? Who writes mass mourning policies to explain to grade 4 why their teacher is not coming back? Who is (virtually) seated with the sobbing child whose GCSEs have been canceled?
Teachers. Gove may have removed the words “families” and decimated budgets, leaving little in the pot for welfare, but schools have never given up on helping. In times of the most desperate families – when the government did not quickly deliver its national food stamp program, when its promise of online resources was slow and limited – school leaders intervened to make these things happen occur.
Of course, the chefs are well-paid professionals with valuable job security, and 12 million parents have now taken on the burden of home schooling while trying to keep or find a job. In the midst of these difficulties, the well-being of school principals is not everyone’s main concern. But survey data shows that a third of chefs are working longer hours than before (they have already worked 60-hour weeks), most are still going to school regularly and drinking spreads as an adaptation mechanism. Also remember that the average age of a school principal is 50, which means that many are more at risk if they are infected with Covid-19.
Talking to school principals, many are at the end of their tether. Some will leave, others will stay – and those who do will likely find new zeal to fight back.
To move forward, the government should take two steps. First, he must accept that schools cannot return to a situation where reduced budgets reduce leaders to restrictions on soap and mental health services are impenetrable. Austerity has had its day.
Second, ministers must resist pressure to bounce schools in a fanciful way. Anyone who thinks that a good social distancing can be done in a full (or even half full) school has never met a child or gone to school. A properly planned and clearly communicated return is the least that everyone needs.
Finally, I implore everyone, parents, governors, the general public, to be gentle in the schools. They cannot be perfect right now. Children will be upset by canceled exams. Not all schools can stay open for Easter. One may have sent a digital learning kit home, another may have sent textbooks and wished them luck. When the world changes in nine minutes, it rarely changes too. No one has an easy pandemic. Hopefully it will be over soon.