Back to school? Certainly – once we’ve shown young people how to address detail.

Posted on May 13, 2020

class cartoon

In September 1976 I started my first teaching job. I taught in state comprehensives for the next 28 years and have now spent a further 16 training teachers or working with them on their research into teaching and learning. I share this potted CV simply because a few people who respond to this blog tell me – as is their inalienable right – that on a whole range of issues I don’t know what I’m talking about. They’re entitled to their opinion, but on this one, I’m digging my heels in.

There are two enduring and insoluble problems about being a teacher. The first – and, again, I’m not complaining, just stating a fact – is that everyone has an opinion about how you should be doing your job. We’ve all been to school, we’ve all seen teachers in action at first hand, so we’re all perfectly justified in expressing our view about how well or badly they perform. I had a teacher friend who claimed that when asked about his occupation at social gatherings, replied that he was a cobbler, so fed up had he become with telling the truth and then being harangued about how hopeless his chosen profession was. I never saw this in action, but I know how he felt.

The second problem is the bar-room bombast about 13 weeks of holiday and six-hour days. My firm advice to new teachers when first faced with this is simply not to engage. Anyone who knows any teachers would never come out with such guff but, if absolutely necessary, simply point out that there is an ongoing shortage of teachers and so living this cushy life is just a simple training course away. On a topical note, there will be plenty of locked-down adults who might just have had these particular scales lifted from their eyes.

I turn to the topic of teachers because we’re going to be at the centre of an increasingly bitter political debate over the next few weeks. The return of young people to their schools and colleges is now a signifier of the highest order. It would represent a massive indication of a some sort of normality; it would be a catalyst for the resumption of much economic activity; we could start the job of addressing the obvious gaps in opportunity for young people for which, apparently, this government has discovered a new-found enthusiasm. Everyone wants to see schools opening.

Given that this is the case, the dispiriting headlines from some (not all) of the right-wing press tell an alarming story. The Daily Telegraph has led the way, talking of how ‘teachers are playing politics with our children’s lives’ and of ‘teacher unions…fighting to keep students out of the classroom’. Quite why this journal is leading the way in this old-fashioned bashing of teachers and their unions – especially at a time when the nation adores its newly recognised key workers – requires some explanation.

Teachers and their excellent representatives have made five clear demands that need to be met before schools can open. The number of cases need to be lower; this, in its turn, demands more testing; protocols for social distancing need to be firmly in place; vulnerable staff need to be protected and an action plan must be ready if infection is discovered. Simple, unambiguous and important measures requiring close attention to detail – something in woefully short supply in government circles. We’ve heard a good deal about modelling lately; what teachers and their unions are doing, as befits educators, is demonstrating what planning for a range of eventualities looks like. Fortunately, most parents, children and members of the public understand and appreciate this.

So why this irritable stance from the Telegraph and a handful of others? The answer lies in our hazy vision of what society will look like once the virus is under some sort of control.

An idea now cherished by millions of people is that we must emerge from this as a better society – one that is not constantly striving for growth and profit at all times and at all costs. There is universal recognition that the way in which the virus has struck has exposed gaping inequalities in society that we must address. The understanding that communities act best when they act together plays out in thousands of acts of unprompted kindness every day. We have learned that we can change our behaviour in radical ways and that our lives need not come to a juddering stop. Millions of us want to be in a re-ordered world that is more humane and more compassionate. A society where need, rather than greed, is the driver.

Even the most hardened Telegraph readers might find it hard to take umbrage at this vision, but what they understand in the depths of their collective soul is that this can only happen if we change our current models of leadership and power. Do we want people listening to well-informed trade union leaders or hard-headed men of business? Should the loudest voice in the room be the climate change activist or the oil magnate – the doler out of dividends? The inquisitive scientist or the communications guru? What’s the final choice to be – people or profit? ‘Our’ people or ‘theirs’?

The website of the National Education Union (NEU) was in overdrive this week. Thousands of teachers joined as they understood that here was an organisation that was working hard to protect the interests of everyone involved in protecting the education and welfare of our children. It’s little wonder that the little paper of little Britain felt its blood run cold and stiffened its sinews to ask, ‘who do these people think they are?’

Those of us who have spent a lifetime in education can provide an answer. These people don’t think, they know that they’re the ones who deal with young people who, just in case it’s passed anyone by, are funny, clever, frustrating and entirely unpredictable. They’re the people who know that children learn at different rates and in different ways. They’re the people who know that, above else – and even if they never show it – young people want their adults to be clear, certain and confident in their dealings with them.

We can expect more right-wing spitefulness in the weeks to come. But the more workers and their representative organisations follow the lead of the NEU and demand specific and detailed responses to their questions, the less likely we will be to be treated to the shower of incomprehensible bluster that so bemused the nation last Sunday evening. It’d be a good lesson to teach the government.

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