What choices do teachers have to make before June 1?
The education sector is very much in the national spotlight this week as councils and other devolved bodies attempt to make sense of the government’s ambition to restart primary schools from June 1 - but the view from inside the profession is nothing to do with not wanting to do their duty, as some media and politicians are suggesting, and all about the logistical and safety preparations involved, according to a Cambridge sixth form college teacher.
Though not involved in the immediate June 1 drive, Long Road Sixth Form English teacher Emma Harpley has been following events with interest, since what will or won't happen on June 1 has some bearing on what will or might happen over the summer as other educational establishments consider the challenges for re-opening for the new intake in September.
The term at Long Road has continued during lockdown, with teachers working from home.
“I teach A-level English,” says Emma, “so that works comparatively well for students at home, compared to something like art or design technology - as long as students have the IT.
“Lots of students are really enjoying it, it means they can do the work in their own time and there’s live lessons, so I’ll say hi and we’ll have a chat, then I’ll discuss a text and give some example analysis, then maybe set them an essay which may take an hour but there is some autonomy on how they approach it. The whole point at sixth form is we’re helping them to become more independent and for those students with social anxieties, for example, it’s now an ideal environment for them.”
The lessons are actually more time-consuming for the teacher under lockdown.
“Everything is already designed to be used in person, so we’re having to re-create resources to suit the new way of learning. Checking students’ work is more difficult electronically. We’re adapting though, and finding new ways to do things.”
Adaptations will be required to make a success of current rules around social distancing. Emma is keen to make clear these are logistical challenges, and nothing to do with any “attitude”, as some parts of the national media and political classes are alleging.
“There’s no resentment, it’s just a question of how do you go about doing it,” she said in a virtual meeting from her Cambridge home. “A normal college day is a meticulously planned, well-oiled machine, moving up to 2,500 people - students and staff - around our grounds to a precise timetable. Reworking that, safely, in the current situation, I’m sure we’ll do - but not at a moment’s notice, without due consideration of all the factors involved. We’ve done wonderful things but at every stage of the process we have to remember that safety is paramount, and it’s not a quick and easy process.
“I heard someone on the radio the other day saying ‘teachers don’t want to go back’ and I think ‘this isn’t a question about wanting, it’s about safety and logistics, as well as learning’ - quite often when you solve one problem you create another. For instance how do the students get to the college and how do we timetable their lessons? We’re an inclusive college with a massive catchment area, there are all sorts of transport restrictions - so how can students safely get to college? If only those who drive can attend, that’s another separation right there - the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students widens even more and that’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve.”
Emma’s personal view of the national drama being played out ahead of June 1 is that “the drive is for younger children to be given to teachers so parents can go back to work, so the economy can get moving again”.
She adds: “Though this doesn’t affect me personally, as my students are 16-plus, I very much understand the safety concerns of primary teachers and parents of young children. Any return must be carefully thought through and planned and resourced. As a country, we’ve been operating under a ‘stay home’ banner for two months now and that line is changing in a way which is more difficult to apply, as by definition it includes an element of risk. ‘Safety first’ again, perhaps? Our task is to find the balance so we can protect our students and staff and the families of both - which is the wider community - so we can keep safe and carry on.”
Treating educators in this way - as glorified carers - has its roots in the years of under-funding which began with Michael Gove’s restructuring of the education sector when he was secretary of state for education, 2010-2014.
During this period Gove - who this weekend told teachers to “look to their responsibilities” and open schools - pushed through his radical ideological changes to the curriculum, examination and school systems. Playing fields were sold off, the ‘free schools’ format was set up, rote learning was introduced, examinations became formularised - and personal vanity projects like sending every school in the land a copy of the St James Bible at a cost of £370,000, while viciously eroding budgets, didn’t help much either. Emma is circumspect about this divisive and destructive era, saying only that Gove “made it harder to engender learning for the love of learning and discussions about things that matter - English is partly about developing critical thinking, that needs time and space to nurture”.
Interestingly, however, she adds that the time and flexibility students currently have is encouraging something of an upturn in their desire to learn - even with their exams cancelled.
“Learning for its own sake is back! Many students say they are spending even more time on college work than normal, and I’m having lovely discussions with some of my Year 13 students - whose exams have been cancelled - about the books they are reading and TV shows they’re watching. They are realising that learning doesn’t need a terminal exam to have value, and that’s the greatest lesson of all I think. They are seeing how all their formal learning comes together as we’ve actually been learning about people and the world in our literature lessons. For me, this proves what we do in classrooms relates to the real world.”
On the potential return of Year 12 students from June 1, Emma says: “Nothing is decided, everything is being discussed and consulted on. We won’t do anything until we’re sure it’s safe and meanwhile we’re helping support students with mental health and wellbeing. Lockdown has really pulled mental health into everyone’s radar, I think, if it wasn’t there before, and more people than ever are talking about it which is a good thing. No one can reach their potential if their mental health isn’t good and this is something the teaching profession is really good at.”
The exam system, too, is adapting rather well. The mocks have been redesigned to take place at home. With A-level and GCSEs cancelled, schools and colleges are busy calculating those grades for students to receive in August.
“That’s a massive exercise in collecting and examining data and knowing the students and predicting the future even if we haven’t seen evidence of a student’s best yet,” says Emma. “It’s about everything they have done and might have done and it’s a huge responsibility and these young people have lives to live; dreams to pursue. Some want to go to university, some want apprenticeships or employment, and we are working harder than ever helping to prepare and launch them into what’s next.”
If the pupil or student isn’t happy with their calculated exam result, they can choose to sit a reorganised exam in the autumn.
“There’s more logistics to be worked out to enable that, but it’s important those students who want to sit the exam have that opportunity. It might make all the difference to their life and, even more than ever in a diminished economy, it’s essential we do all we can to give our young people opportunities and confidence. They need to know the world hasn’t turned its back on them.”
So try to consider, when you read divisive headlines about “militant unions”, or the Daily Mail’s recent front page headline of ‘Let our teachers be heroes’ as though it was their turn to be sacrificed for the national good, that maybe the teaching profession - much-maligned and deliberately starved of funds for a decade - is actually acting responsibly in putting the safety of children first.
It’s a complicated scenario and there needs to be some nuance, and some questions over the government’s handling of the crisis are inevitable. In the words of one London-based university lecturer I spoke to: “They messed it up with care homes and now they’re turning their attention to schools?”
Ultimately, the optimal way to safeguard your child’s future is to have them stay home: if there is a way out of the current quagmire it is to introduce testing, tracking (using an app people can trust) and isolating with no further delay. Delivering that by September is surely a realistic possibility. June 1, though?