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Back to school: safety versus public service?


The UK government have set a date for the opening of Primary Schools (1 June) and then Secondary Schools with exam years in mind (15 June). The extent to which these dates are mandatory or mere guidance is not at all clear. The two main teacher unions have expressed deep concerns about opening schools and are opposing a return unless a number of safety measures are put into place.

At the Academy of Ideas Education Forum Claire Fox (writer and Academy of Ideas Director) and Conor McCrory (teacher and NEU representative) led the debate about whether teachers should be more concerned about safety or fulfilling a public service when considering opening up schools. Whilst the opening of schools is technically a government decision, teachers have the capacity to add their weight to the discussion through their workplace and through union involvement.

Here I am going to offer my thoughts with a recommendation to watch the recorded debate when it goes online. The Education Forum is fortunate enough to get some excellent speakers and I can only suggest that you watch Claire and Conor argue their own position in a way that generated some valuable discussion on the night.

I was told to join a union when I was teacher training, in as much as it was deemed to be for my own good. I can remember my PGCE Course Director blurting out ‘Idiot!’ to a fellow trainee who had still not joined a union after starting his teacher placement. In the event of an accusation being made against you a teachers’ union provides legal assistance and advice. If a teacher is the subject of a disciplinary procedure by the school their union is one of the few sources of guaranteed support. The first person to help is likely to be the union representative who works in the school. It is important to acknowledge the worth and hard work of unions in taking care of members. In the current climate much is said about the well-being and care for staff and students. Yet I don’t believe that teachers are under any illusions that in some circumstances a teacher is on their own. You can quite easily be a dedicated public servant for years, but things can change and there are plenty of innocent teachers who can vouch for this point.

Sticking up for its members can include strike action. The resistance of the NEU and NASUWT to reopening schools can hardly be called strike action: it was the government who closed them. The government will struggle to reopen without a degree of consent from teachers. The attempts of unions to delay the reopening until September is, I am sure, simply about protecting members. When such a significant number of teachers are resisting returning to school it probably does mean something. It should not just be dismissed as moaning teachers. Since it is difficult to get a consensus amongst teachers on anything, the point that they are fearful of opening schools up needs discussing. Those teachers, as I say, are probably right to listen to their union because they know that their union will stick up for them in a way that their schools won’t (ultimately).

What is at the heart of teacher reticence about returning to schools? Perhaps the most dominant consensus in education is that everyone should feel safe and protected. Twenty years ago when I started teaching the emphasis on child safety was very much about not letting children get hurt physically in any way. If they did then parents would sue. Typically they would win. It cost money and time; it was far better to put that time into preparing well so that children did not get harmed in the first place. In one case, a parent successfully sued a school in my local area after daughter was injured in a hockey match by the ball. The injury was quite minimal; the payout was not. The school stopped teaching hockey to all students.

Fast forward twenty years and the concern for safety has taken on new meaning, as was inevitable. The emotional welfare of the child comes into play: somehow teachers have got to maximise child potential without causing stress or anxiety. It is a fine line. Teachers take responsibility for the personal and social welfare of the children far more. They educate parents about what should be in the child’s lunchbox. Some teachers have joined their students in climate change protests. Before teachers do anything else they are supposed to care.

In the context of covid-19 it seems hardly surprising that there is a fear about returning to work. The risk to children seems quite small, but of course they could pass the infection on to a family member. Then there are staff members that have underlying health conditions and (or) are over sixty years of age. You might say that safety concerns have reached, propelled by covid-19, their logical conclusion. One way of staying safe is to simply stay at home until safety is guaranteed. At the moment it seems that this stay at home argument has won. The desire for safety has superseded matters of education, class divide or public service.

As one contributor characterised it, public service might just mean duty. Teachers perhaps have a duty to educate and go to work. They have a responsibility to teach. It is what is expected of them. This argument is quickly met with the point that teachers have been working, although it is very difficult to say just how many children in the UK have received contact from a teacher since the end of March. Still schools do not seem to be shut through teacher laziness. Their heartfelt concern is that children and teachers will not be safe. It has to be concluded that safety has won over public service, at least for the time being.

Public service might be losing the argument because it is much harder to define what it means. If teaching, including a return to school, is a duty, then what makes it a duty? The salary courtesy of the taxpayer? The fact that for older teachers your LEA funded your degree? Or perhaps when you have a talent and training for something then it is your duty to put it to good use and be ready to do so. Who are your loyalties to if you are a teacher? The taxpayer has funded your salary: do you think of the taxpayer when deciding whether to support opening schools or not? Then there is the government. If they tell you what to do, as the democratically elected politicians, do you obey? Then there are your school leaders, who are your immediate bosses. At what point do the needs of the children come into play? The child may be ‘happy’ at home, but that doesn’t mean you should support them. Then most teachers have union membership, which they pay into, unlike the school, government and taxpayer or fee payer who between them orchestrate paying the teacher.

Public service, the sense of obligation to the public, is perhaps on the wane because it is unlikely to benefit teachers in the long run. It doesn’t seem to count for anything. Schools abandoned their colleagues quite readily when a child complains. Who would you turn to? Your union. It might seem natural then that teachers will show the greatest loyalty for those who reciprocate that backing.

There is also the point about conformism. Most of the time it is a good thing that teachers are conformists. They tend to be the ones who did well at school, listened to their teachers to an extent, and hence ended up with qualifications that helped them become teachers. Of course there are exceptions, but on whole the typical teacher conforms. Since the lockdown it is very difficult to know what anyone thinks because there seems to be a groupthink mentality that binds together each citizen in doing the right thing, staying safe, clapping the NHS and staying two metres away. It is not easy to speak out for those who feel differently. The assumption that most teachers do not wish to reopen schools before September could be mistaken. Indeed there were plenty at the Academy of Ideas Education Forum who thought that it was time to return.

The unions are definitely in a powerful position, for now. They could use their position to negotiate. Personally, I think teachers have every right to claim that their own immune systems should be a priority. They need time to exercise, eat well, sleep well and have down time. Teaching is renowned for being a stressful profession, perhaps because of extra workload, bureaucracy, emails, planning, risk assessments, predicted grades. Perhaps the unions could organise the reopening of schools on the strict understanding that teachers teach. When they are not teaching they are recovering, relaxing and reading (the three r's). The mistake that unions could be making is that if they delay re-opening too long they could lose public support and end up with a worse deal. At some point teachers will have to take some sort of risk and return to work (in full); until then, safety has won.

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