UPDATE: This article has been updated following a complaint made by Brendan Clarke-Smith MP. The original article referred to a picture of him wearing a mask over his genitalia and suggested that he was showing contempt for pandemic mask wearing. We have now been informed that the picture was taken in 2011 at a charity event raising money for the British Heart Foundation and the Air Ambulance service. We would like to issue our unreserved apology for sharing this misinformation and we regret any distress this caused Mr Clarke-Smith.
Over the past two years, I have catalogued the disastrous record of Boris Johnson’s government, principally with respect to the education and wellbeing of children in England. For most of this time it has been under the mismanagement of the hapless education secretary Gavin Williamson. But Johnson has now excelled himself in his latest appointment of junior education minister, principally Morley and Outwood MP Andrea Jenkyns, a self-declared Trump ally who flipped a finger at the crowd as she entered Downing Street (an action for which both school children and school teachers would be disciplined).
But such issues are only the bitter cherry on top of a tiered, rancid cake.
The Covid-19 disaster in schools
In my first article for Yorkshire Bylines in early May 2020, I questioned the wisdom of bringing the youngest children back into schools first, given the level of physical care they required, and the impossibility of independently managed distancing amongst such young children.
Three weeks later, I explored local authorities’ concerns about reopening schools, as the ‘herd immunity’ alarm began to ring on social media. At that time, Professor Anthony Costello proposed at an Independent SAGE meeting: “If a government actually had a strategy of herd immunity, it wouldn’t look much different from what we have now.”
By September 2020, Covid had begun to spread amongst teachers and pupils.
In a blatantly partisan movement just before Christmas 2020 Williamson, who was to later be controversially knighted by Johnson, threatened to take legal action against schools in Labour-controlled Greenwich for Covid closures, while allowing them to go ahead in Tory-controlled Basildon.
In February 2021, I wrote about the fact that the government was ‘cherry picking’ research findings in order to suppress data that supported there being asymptomatic spreading of Covid-19 by children.
By the following Christmas it was clear that the government intended to repeat the mistakes of the previous year, this time with the new Omicron variant. Ruth Swailes and I highlighted the fact that the Department for Education’s (DfE) refusal to bring in mitigations in both autumn terms meant that England was heading towards a ‘groundhog day’, which in fact came to pass, with the highest number of Covid cases ever recorded on Thursday 23 January 2021.
For the second year in a row, Johnson’s government consistently failed to take appropriate action to protect children, their teachers and by the transmission process, their families from continual infection by subsequent variants of Covid-19 throughout the pandemic.
The results of this abject failure, in the shape of lives blighted by the long-term effects of Covid, will not be fully apparent for some time to come.
The curriculum and assessment disaster
In early July 2020, after children had not been in school for 12 weeks, I suggested some alternative approaches to education that would enable a safer return of children to schools as the academic year 2020/21 opened. This included a project-led curriculum for under 14s that would be more robust for schools moving in and out of lockdown, especially paired with the type of online learning the Open University had been running for decades.
Instead, an academy that had no previous knowledge was appointed the sole provider of online learning for England’s schools, a move that baffled me until very recently, when Byline Times published an article that clarified the matter, tracing the intricate links between the academy and Johnson’s ministers.
The use of algorithms in national assessments was also a key factor in the unfolding chaos, particularly the DfE’s disastrous attempt to apply this to teacher-assessed A-level results. This resulted in children from disadvantaged backgrounds consistently receiving lower grades in the assessments that determined their post-18 futures.
This issue continues to affect children today. The ‘reset’ for this year’s grades will most likely result in students receiving significantly lower grades than their slightly older peers, an issue that will continue to disadvantage them as time goes by and the impact of the pandemic on assessment results starts to be forgotten.
The march of the tsars
Johnson’s government has a long history of appointing unlikely ‘tsars’ whose rash policies, controversial initiatives and chequered track records indicate they are more interested in protecting the interests of the powerful than those of vulnerable children.
Thus far, we have been given:
- a controversial ‘behaviour tsar’ who advocates isolation booths in contravention of advice from the British Psychological Society
- a children’s commissioner who reportedly engaged in ‘strategic exclusions’ of vulnerable children
- a national open learning service that reportedly has ties to Vote Leave and prominent Conservative supporters, and
- a social mobility tsar who in addition to her eccentric view on the wearing of face masks in a pandemic, recently proposed that ‘girls dislike hard maths’.
The Schools Bill: a huge power grab
The government recently launched a Schools Bill that heralds a huge power grab whereby the government will be able to micromanage the day-to-day processes within every school in England. This came as a shock to Margaret Thatcher’s architect of the national curriculum, Lord Baker, who delivered a strong speech in the House of Lords to demand amendments.
In addition, Johnson’s government has continually pushed the agenda for multi-academy trusts (MATs), the track record of which has been highly controversial. Panorama recently exposed some of the main issues arising from England’s MATs, principally murky financial dealings relating to chief executives and senior staff on very high salaries keeping opaque financial records.
There are also issues relating to the harsh treatment of MAT pupils, which has had particular significance on pupils in Wakefield. One of the MATs investigated in this article has been named by the government as one of their preferred MATs to lead a proposed new Institute of Teacher Training, delivering teacher training across the nation. Four MATs will be given £121,000,000 to form a partnership to pilot this initiative.
Enough is enough
What Johnson intends by installing a cabinet of agitators to see out his final weeks as prime minister is not yet clear. As well as flipping her middle finger at the crowd last week, the new education minister shouted at them “those who laugh last laugh the loudest, wait and see”. Perhaps Jenkyns was giving us an ominous clue.
I would suggest that given this history (which has many parallels in other government departments) it is unwise for the Conservative Party to adopt a ‘wait and see’ policy. Johnson must go, and go now, before whatever plan he is hatching has time to unfold. As we say in Yorkshire, Britain and most particularly her children have had the far side of enough