Yesterday, I met with local primary school head teachers and Labour’s Shadow Schools Minister, Wes Streeting MP, to discuss the major pressures our school staff, parents and children are under.
Wes and I are immensely grateful to the head teachers for their incredible work and for taking the time to speak to us. They were frank and honest about how the pandemic has affected our school communities. From rapidly shifting government guidance and deep concern about colleagues in hospital, to the digital divide and funding strains, the head teachers’ experiences highlighted how Government failings and chaos have made their jobs so much more difficult. A Teacher Tapp survey shows anxiety levels have rocketed and the head teachers told us they just didn’t feel the Government was on their side.
The Christmas holidays should have been a time for teachers, support staff, parents and children to have a much-needed break. Instead, government U-turns with no time to plan for school ‘closures’ were learnt about on twitter and 24hr news channels. Everything appeared reactionary, with no foresight.
The head teachers felt the Government were too late to ‘close’ schools. I say ‘close’ because they are very much open and teaching large numbers of keyworker kids – many more than during the March lockdown. The Government’s unclear guidance on bubble sizes, and the lack of space means that schools are unsure if they might have to turn away some of these kids. Accurate risk assessments can only follow from clear Government guidance backed up by scientific evidence – all of this is needed to build confidence for staff and unions.
We all know it’s not in children’s best interests to carry on like this, but as one head teacher said, “It was infuriating to hear the Government say schools are safe, when we know how easy the virus is spread in schools and we have teachers who are seriously ill in hospital with Covid-19.”
Staff are clearly on their knees already. They now hear gossip that schools may not return after half term and their message was clear – give head teachers at least two weeks to plan.
As more kids are in school and rightly demanding teachers’ time, this puts pressure on the quality of online learning those very same teachers provide. The digital divide, for disadvantaged kids who don’t access to devices and data, is leaving kids behind. There simply aren’t enough devices for those who need them. Even if there were, some families are not digitally or technologically capable of installing them, or they might not be able to afford the electricity to keep them on.
Many children in the most vulnerable category are just not turning up to school and teachers are struggling to get through to them and their families.
So much more catch-up funding will be needed in the future. So many hours of lost learning, for already disadvantaged children across the country, will cost millions if not billions. All at the same time as inevitable deficits caused by extra cleaning costs and loss of income from rent and wraparound care that schools might usually provide.
Wes Streeting MP said: “Head teachers are doing a brilliant job in very difficult circumstances and unfortunately, their job is being made harder as a result of the chaos in government. I really valued the opportunity to talk directly to heads about the challenges they’re facing, which will directly impact on Labour’s work in Parliament to hold the government to account and demand better for pupils in Enfield and across the country.”
I have now raised these serious issues with Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, and our asks are clear:
-Get on top of this pandemic to get all children back to school.
-Gather clear data on staff sickness and absence.
-Give schools clear and timely guidance.
-Give schools the funding they need.
-Give teachers and school staff priority vaccination.
-Roll-out mass community vaccinations. Quickly.
-Put in place well organised, mass-testing regimes in partnership with schools.
-Give confidence back to a stressed and anxious schools workforce.
-Urgently put together a post-covid plan for schools.
-Make ending child poverty a priority to close the opportunity gap.
Without these, we risk so much. In the Labour opposition, we are worried about the schools’ workforce, and we’re worried about children’s futures. To make sure we get the very best out of every child and that we retain the excellent head teachers, teachers and school staff that are working so hard up and down the country, we need much better from the Government.