Education Was Never Schools’ Sole Focus. The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Proved It
Dealing with a pandemic is not an easy feat. The entire society is vulnerable, and each individual is facing their own struggles. For headteachers in England, the challenges are even greater. They are responsible for 8.7 million children, and their anxieties are multiplied accordingly.
The past month has been particularly harsh for school leaders, and it is important for everyone to proceed with caution if we do not want thousands of teachers to fall ill due to the virus.
The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, changed everything in just nine minutes when he announced that schools would close indefinitely, exams would be cancelled, and that schools would have to care for vulnerable children and children of key workers, even during the Easter holidays. Headteachers had to switch from running an ordinary school to organizing a virtual school, a childcare center, and a food delivery service. They had only two days to turn it around. It is a shame that it has taken a pandemic to prove that education was never the sole focus of schools.
Ten years ago, headteachers may have found it easier. The Department for Children, Schools and Families managed education under Labour, which was well-funded and large. However, the Conservative government rejected this method, seeing it as a focus on child welfare. The then-Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wanted the emphasis to be on academic rigor and discipline. He changed the name back to the Department for Education and terminated almost every initiative related to children’s well-being.
For a decade, headteachers have felt every budget cut to children’s services, every psychologist, every nurse, or a school police officer. They have felt every hour they have had to spend coordinating help for a child after Children’s Trusts were disbanded. Yet, as schools closed and society crumbled, it was teachers who stepped up to help. In families’ hour of most desperate need, when the government failed to deliver its national food voucher scheme quickly and when its online resources were slow and limited, school leaders made things happen.
Of course, headteachers are well-paid professionals with job security, but balancing home-schooling and work remains a burden for the 12 million parents. Despite these difficulties, a third of headteachers remain working longer hours than before, and there is an uptick in alcohol use as a coping mechanism. Let’s remember that the average age of a headteacher is 50, meaning many are at higher risk if infected with Covid-19. Talking to school leaders reveals that many are at the edge of their nerves; some may leave and more will stay – those who do will likely have a new passion for fighting back.
The government must accept that schools cannot return to a situation where budgets have been slashed, and soap is scarce, and mental health services are impenetrable. Austerity has had its day. Furthermore, ministers must resist the urge to impulsively reopen schools. Anyone who believes that proper social distancing can be achieved in a full or even half-full school has never met a child or visited a school. A well-planned and clearly communicated return is the least that everyone deserves.
Finally, parents, governors, and the general public must give schools a break. No one is perfect in these difficult times. Children will be upset about cancelled exams. Not all schools can stay open during Easter. Some may have a sophisticated digital learning platform, while others may have sent home textbooks and well-wishes. When the world changes in nine minutes, it rarely changes uniformly. No one is having an easy pandemic, and we hope that it will all be over soon.