It was in the first book of the Kings in the Old Testament (3:16-28) where the Hebrew King Solomon had an impossible decision to make regarding conflicting maternal claims over the parentage of a baby. Having listened to both women, he called for a sword to cut the baby in half knowing that the real mother would rather hand over the child to the charlatan than see it killed. No school governor is currently facing decisions of such magnitude and complexity but many of us feel we need the wisdom of Solomon in navigating the gradual return to school of children, young people, and our staff.
In some ways the last few weeks have been easy for governors. Although helpless to prevent the closing down of national education at the end of March, we have largely been able to sit back and simply marvel at the ingenuity, dexterity and consummate professionalism of our leaders and teachers, who have adapted almost instantly to remote learning, constructed at all times against a backdrop of well-being and positive mental health. They have weathered the storm caused by a school meal voucher debacle whilst becoming immediately proficient in Zoom and Teams, and finding creative and innovative ways of engaging children and, indeed, their parents and carers. No it’s not been easy. No, it’s not been normal. But the gargantuan effort by already stressed, and undoubtedly worried, teachers and leaders is cause for national celebration. Certainly there should be no argument around school staff being applauded on Thursday nights just as much as any other key worker.
I need to be frank here. I don’t want to write an overtly politicised blog as it’s not helpful. However you cannot disentangle government decision-making and establishment of priorities from the situation schools are currently in. The fact is there was inevitably always going to be pressure on schools to re-open their gates once the sheer enormity of the financial crisis became apparent. Whether we like it or not schools are viewed by some as national child care providers to allow the workers to return to their factories and offices to jump start industry, business and commerce. I think many of us assumed that this would take place from September as the virus gradually evaporated into the hazy sunshine of summer. Once can only surmise that it is the sheer numbers of those who have been furloughed that has provoked the government to try and reintroduce in-school education for certain age groups from June 1st. Immediately, up and down the land, leaders and governors have been hastily convening streamed meetings and considering detailed risk assessments along with the obligatory tape measure.
Make no mistake every Headteacher, teacher, support staff, office staff and site staff I have spoken to or read are unequivocal in their desire to be back in school doing a job they love with children they cherish. BUT only if it is safe to do so. And here’s the conundrum we face. Irrespective of political persuasion here are some facts. Britain has 0.8% of the world’s population. It has over 11% of world COVID deaths, the second highest death toll in the world. Yesterday (13th May) the equivalent of a jumbo-jet full of passengers died from this terrible illness. All loved. All with a name. Never just a number. May they rest in peace. Testing in this country is not at the same level as other nations and is missing targets. Government scientists appear uncertain, and issue conflicting messages around the possibility of child to child, and child to adult transmission.People are told to wear masks on public transport (having been told to avoid it) but school staff are told it is not necessary. Some reports say social distancing is critical for children. Others say less so. Nobody seems to really know.
Completing a risk assessment in normal circumstances is easy. Identify the risk, put resources or actions in place to mitigate the risk, and hence reduce or remove it. COVID, and a return to schools, take risk assessment to an unprecedented level. How do you mitigate against death? How do you put things in place to reduce the risk when there is no scientific consensus around the level of risk . How do you prevent a potential epidemic within a school? At what point do you conclude you may be fighting a losing battle and shut down again?
It is against this backdrop of uncertainty and yes, fear that some vocal parents have stated they will keep children at home. School staff supported by, for once, a unified union voice, have challenged government to guarantee reasonable levels of safety before advising a return to their memberships. And of course governance with its employment and duty of care responsibilities is wrestling with the “cost v benefit” analysis of children filing back into class. I have a view that we may see mass dissent, and only a drip-feed of children going back after the half term holiday. There are teachers with health issues, and indeed justifiable anxiety, who will feel unable to return. They need supportive and caring employers as opposed to the orchestrated right wing media cacophony already tarring the profession as a bunch of lazy, politicised malcontents. Given the heroism, and I choose that word wisely, of our schools’ staff since shutdown I say this to those sneering voices. Shut up. Or walk a mile in the shoes of those you disparage before spouting your grossly unhelpful bile. Teachers care about people especially little people, before profits. You would do well to learn from them.
I’m sat here nine days (excluding half term) from our school potentially reopening. Tonight governors meet online with the Head to go through his plans and to see if, and how we can facilitate a phased return. We have already made a pledge that we will not compromise health and well-being, and this will be front of mind when coming to conclusions. We are already stretched in terms of staff thanks to sustained underfunding. We already have areas of our site inaccessible due to sustained underfunding. Our school field is wholly reliant on good weather due to sustained underfunding. All of these are real factors that we have to wrestle with on the ground, whilst ministers and advisors make up policy on a fag packet having not visited a state school outside the M25 since, well…probably since the M25 was built.
I think come June 1st, or a date close to that, we may have some children in school. Nowhere near all and spread out so much it negates any social benefits of return. Teachers will lead face to face lessons whilst colleagues address remotely educating those still at home. No hugs for Miss. No fist bumps for Sir. A surreal, eerie and quite unnatural environment. Beyond that I suspect there will be no further cohorts returning. There simply isn’t the space on a school footprint to socially distance two hundred primary, or thirteen hundred secondary students. This sporadic, even haphazard arrangement will actually defeat its intended aim. A parent with a child in Year One (in school) and one in Year Three (at home) cannot return to work. The mother of a Year Six pupil might be able to work mornings, but may need to finish at lunch to accommodate the staggered teaching of the class. Like much of the last two months it very much resembles to me a tin of Pedigree Chum at 8am.
The government should not assume governors and trustees will meekly follow their advice. We are normally a compliant bunch given our professionalism and understanding of the importance of children being in school. However, these are strange times and might lead to strange outcomes. Most boards I have ever met are led overwhelmingly by ethical considerations, putting values and culture before operational and performance considerations. I fully expect that any board, without sufficient certainty around risk and mitigation will refuse to reopen. They will refrain from challenging dissenting parents and staff, and quite rightly. They will only admit children to the premise if as sure as is possible that their health and well-being will not be compromised. We are not pushovers. We are not lapdogs. And the government can turn its media storm-troopers on the education sector to divert its own culpability, but we will not be diverted from our chosen path. We govern for our school. Not for our government. If you are a governor or trustee battling all of these questions this week I wish you all the luck in the world. And the wisdom of Solomon.