Returning to School: Was it a Political or Pastoral Decision?

Returning to School: Was it a Political or Pastoral Decision?

Was returning to school in the best interest of the pupils? Teachers’ unions certainly don’t think so…

Teachers and Pupils

As the Easter break approaches, you can’t help but wonder if the decision to reopen schools was the right one for students and staff. Returning to school seems like meeting a familiar stranger. School life as we knew it has been replaced with bubbles, COVID testing and lingering uncertainty. A recent study conducted by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families charity found that 48 per cent of young people would not speak to school staff about their mental health concerns. The transition back to school is evidently difficult and almost half the young people are keeping their struggles bottled up.

The head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman  said “With the best will in the world, schools haven’t been able to avert an epidemic of demotivated children. Heads have told us that even the hardest-working pupils lost enthusiasm as time went on”. The demotivation from remote learning has intruded the classroom. Teachers are under a lot of pressure. Tes’ survey of 7,000 UK teachers reported 45 per cent of respondents said they were “drained and exhausted” this term and 17 per cent – said they felt “physically and mentally on the brink”, in regards to their health and wellbeing. Whew – this adjustment period is tough to say the least.

The Unions on Returning to School

Scotland’s biggest teaching union, EIS aired their grievances with the Government’s decision to send pupils back to school. A representative deemed the decision “politically motivated” and suggested that it was done for a ‘good news story’ instead of the wellbeing of staff and students. NEU were also in agreement, claiming that school bubbles are “too big and there is not enough cleaning or PPE”. In their ‘Education Recovery Plan’, NEU suggested that students should only be allowed back on a rota basis and must wear masks all the time – including in the classroom for secondary school. The union also said they have “no confidence” in the £1.3billion governement catch up tuition programme which is supposed to bridge the COVID-19 induced attainment gap in education. 

John Swinney, the Educational Secretary (Scotland) rejects EIS’s claims that returning secondary pupils to school was a ‘political decision’. He insisted that pupils’ wellbeing was at the forefront of sending pupils back to school. Similar sentiments were shared by Gavin Williamson, who deemed the reopening of schools ‘the ultimate triumph’

The negative impact of Covid-19 on pupil attainment cannot be escaped. Educators understand that nothing beats in class face-to-face learning and the already large attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils seems to have grown. Pupils needed to go back to school eventually but the question is – was it for the right reasons? – not convinced.

The Reality

Weeks prior to reopening schools, PM Boris Johnson revealed his roadmap which offered some much needed hope for returning to normality. June 21st became a national release date for a lockdown that feels like house arrest.  Within hours of reopening schools the PM announced that “there will be a risk of increased transmission, that’s inevitable if you open up schools for millions of kids across the country. That is going to happen,”. Even with the “staggered” approach to test each year group for COVID, going back to school full time still has potentially dire consequences on the health of the nation. We all can remember flip-flopping back and forth from “eat out to help out” to increased COVID cases, to “stay at home” to lockdown lifts for Christmas to NHS hospitals close to capacity and straight back to lockdown up to tier 5 for some parts of the country. Now the government advice is to go to school but don’t go anywhere else –  “stay home”. Anyone working in a school can tell you that with all the social distancing procedures in the world young people still struggle to follow guidelines. This puts their families at risk.

Was there any point of lifting the lockdown rules if it will inevitably put us in a more dreadful position than before? Is pupil attainment more important than the health and wellbeing of pupils and teachers? Will the government make allowances for the pressure and expectations placed on pupils and school staff? As it stands, we are still uncertain about the impact returning to school will have on us but we guess the future will tell. But as always, in true teacher fashion – we’ll just have to get on with it.  

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