On Sunday morning, Boris Johnson told us that schools were safe but, tellingly, did not rule out further closures. By Monday evening he had shut every school in England to most pupils. By then, of course, many primary schools had opened for just one day. Children mingled – as they do – and went home not to return. But after those bubbles were mixed, fewer grandparents may be willing to look after them.
When will they return? Johnson said not until half term, at least. But when policy can reverse so quickly in less than 36 hours, just about the only certainty is that it is far easier to close schools than it is it reopen them again. At last night’s press conference, the Prime Minister was asked to confirm that children will definitely return to schools by the summer holidays. He failed to do so.
As for teachers, this chaos is becoming a familiar and depressing feature of our working lives. Within 12 hours of the Prime Minister’s announcement, I was in school firing up my remote teaching resources: laptop, camera, headset, action. If only it were that simple.
Teaching is more than setting an assignment on Microsoft Teams, listening to disembodied voices in earphones and ‘responding in the chat’. Smiles are unseen, the enthusiasm is distant, and the school is quiet. The physics experiments that I had prepared before the holiday will still be neatly stacked on the side bench in my lab, as I log in from home as well.
Year 8 pupils will never hear Radio 1 crackling from loudspeakers they built themselves from thin card, a coil of wire and a bar magnet. My filament lamps might live to see another day – Year 10 were supposed to test them to destruction this week – but my pupils will never feel the tension in the room build as they slowly increase the voltage beyond the 2.5 V stamped on the side (seven volts usually does the job before the bulbs expire in a final flash of glory). YouTube has its merits, of course. And it is better than nothing. But it is not the same as teaching children in real life.
We have been here before, of course. In fact we became adept at lock down teaching in the summer term. But then, we were locked down just before Easter when much of the content had been delivered. This year we are not yet halfway through the course, and the expectations are so much higher.
As thousands of Covid-19 lateral flow testing kits – delivered hastily to schools because of the previous policy which aimed at testing pupils – were packed back in their boxes, teachers up and down the country were developing new resources for delivery to our pupils within 24 hours of the new policy. We have been busy.
But the policy announcement is not yet complete. GCSE and A-Level exams may have been cancelled but we await their replacement. Gavin Williamson is expected to tell MPs today how my pupils will be graded. Within 48 hours of the exams being cancelled it seems that he has come up with a fair method of assessing pupils without them sitting the same exams at the same time. After last year’s fiasco with the infamous algorithm, I will be all ears.
While closing schools was inevitable given the huge increase in cases and the likelihood of transmission, cancelling the exams was not. Whatever the efficacy of the vaccines, by June we will also have the weather on our side. If schools are still shut, the exams may be the least of our concerns. Whatever the faults of school exams – and there are many – they grade children by how much they know. If the exams were good enough last term, when swathes of children across the land were serving two-week sentences of self-isolation, they are good enough now that everyone is in the same boat.
It will take a braver Education Secretary than Williamson not to back down in the face of political pressure when the inevitable unfairness comes to light. After last year’s experience, Zimbabwe-style grade inflation may have made teacher predictions unusable.
However, important as exams have become, schools are far more than mere grade factories. They are places where children learn together and grow together. We need to get them back in school as soon as possible and if that means prioritising the vaccination of teachers and support staff in schools, so be it.
Transmission of the new variant was a game changer, and the numbers will not come down in a hurry, probably not until the warmer days have the effect that they have always had on respiratory viruses.
In the mean time, one thing is clear: children only grow up once and they have missed enough education already. The Government needs to prioritise the vaccination of teachers, so that we can return with confidence into the classroom, and reverse this ludicrous decision to cancel the exams.
Debbie Hayton is a transgender teacher and journalist.
* This article was first published by The Spectator on 6 January 2021: Closing schools was inevitable. But cancelling exams is a mistake.