Education by gaslight

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In a week that has been packed with outrage against the Johnson government, it might have been easy to miss the fact that not only have they voted against providing food for deprived children during the half term holiday, despite claiming heavily on subsistence expenses for themselves, they also backtracked on a promise to provide laptops for children who require them to engage with online learning. However, current numbers missing school due to Covid-19 issues suggest that this is likely to be a significant proportion of pupils over the winter period.

But is the government actually ‘gaslighting’ the public over provision for education during the pandemic, as some teachers are now claiming? I think that there is a cohesive body of evidence to suggest that this may be the case. 

To start with, why – if the government was serious about the provision of high-quality open learning – would they pump money into one institution with no background in this arena to create provision for the entire nation’s children, when there are institutions with far greater experience in open learning who could have been consulted? I raised this question in early July, along with some suggestions of how schools could be better future proofed against a second wave over the winter. But it is now October, and nothing of significance has changed.

And then in August, the exam results debacle arose from insufficient planning and a failure of ministers (all of whom are still in post) to understand how the system actually worked. But all that has thus far been offered for GCSEs and A levels in 2021 is that they are to be taken three weeks later, which will make very little difference to pupils and teachers if we have a winter of very high Covid-19 levels and children missing significant periods of schooling.

Additionally, what of infection levels in schools? At the latest Independent SAGE meeting, Professor Anthony Costello, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University College London, commented in response to questions about ‘bubbles’ of up to 200 children that, “if a government actually had a strategy of herd immunity, it wouldn’t look much different from what we have now”.

This follows on from a teacher telling me over a month ago that “realistically, the idea of containing Covid-19 in a school makes as much sense as holding a fart in a colander”, and a report from Public Health England in early October suggesting that nearly half of the number of positive Covid-19 tests related to attendance of educational settings.

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A BBC News report on 8 October suggested that schoolteachers had been told not to use the Covid-19 app, despite general public messages for as many people as possible to engage in the test and trace programme. The BBC’s anonymous informant reported, “Too many schools want to keep staff in, even if it means breaking the law”.

The University and College Union (UCU) recently began a legal challenge to protect university students and staff from a potential third Covid-19 wave in January, based on a warning issued from SAGE in July (ignored by the government) that it was not safe for students to return to university campuses. UCU cites:

  • Recorded cases at 10,000 since 10 October, and 20,000 since 16 October
  • A Guardian report that infection rates are up to seven times higher at universities than in surrounding areas
  • Cases reported of students with covid being hospitalised and in need of intensive care.

Evidence from the US, reported by the BMJ on 1 September (a fortnight before the first large wave of students began to arrive at British universities) also suggested that these were the likely outcome of sending students back to campus. And sadly, not only the physical, but also the mental health of students has been disregarded.

Last week, Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT suggested that teachers carry out their own Covid-19 risk assessment of their workplace, whilst TES Scotland suggested that teachers were being treated as Covid-19 “cannon fodder”. Teachers themselves have taken to twitter to individually share their fears

It is unclear whether the issues that have arisen for education settings in the UK emanate from muddle, mismanagement and failure to consult, or whether there might be a more sinister plan that has created the unrelenting chaos into which Britain’s children have been plunged. But whatever the underlying reasons, the fact remains that in these uncertain times, the government’s failure to plan ahead and protect both children and the adults who work with them from infection, to provide sufficient sustenance to those whose families have been financially devastated by Covid-19, and to plan effectively for continuity in children’s education, is a gross dereliction of duty.

One of the key points that emerges is that the uncertainty experienced by children and young people in Britain has negatively affected their levels of emotional security during an already anxiety-provoking time. This contrasts with the sensitive and organised approach taken by New Zealand, whose prime minister has just been returned in a landslide result.

So, what of the future for British children, currently staring into a winter of both pandemic and a potential no deal Brexit? The track record of the current government does not bode well. The Conservative Party should take note that this period in British history will be etched upon the electorate’s memory until the dawn of the 22nd century, with the result that they are likely to pay a heavy price for their insouciance at ballot boxes throughout the 21st.

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