The Covid-19 pandemic has been a disaster for children. But calls to extend the school year are not the answer. Obviously, teacher unions will object if their members are instructed to work more days and longer hours in the summer without a pay deal to compensate. However, if their protests have scuppered those plans so quickly, the government needs a better strategy. Besides, children need a new approach now, not later.
I am a teacher and I see at first-hand the deleterious impact of lockdown learning — not only on education but on the mental health of young people. Isolated from teachers and friends, my pupils spend hours a day sat staring at a screen. They might not have developed the square eyes my grandparents warned me about 40 years ago, but they have been left mentally and emotionally exhausted, worried that they are falling behind and without the real-life support of their teachers.
It is almost as difficult from my end of the fibre-optic. Good lessons rely on presence, purpose and pace. Get those right, and teaching can be effective, efficient, and — apparently — effortless. Trying to do it through the blinkers of Zoom is difficult, draining and sometimes desperate as we try and replicate three-dimensions in two. We are all exhausted, staff and students alike. Half term cannot come soon enough for any of us.
The prospect of longer school days in July and August does not help anyone’s mental health. Indeed, after two academic years have been disrupted, we may need time and space to recoup. We will not manage that in probably 30-degree classrooms cramming knowledge into our pupils’ heads. Rather than talk about remedies in the summer, we need to get children back into school soon after half term so that we can make the best use of time that we do have in the calendar.
Teachers’ unions are often criticised for talking more about problems than solutions, but the NASUWT vaccinate2educate campaign is surely a way forward. What sense is there in vaccinating 75-year-old pensioners – who will catch nobody else’s germs if they self-isolate – ahead of 55-year-old teachers who should be in their class room?
Around a million people work in state-funded schools in England. Once the vaccine has been offered to every teacher — and we could all be vaccinated in four days at the rate the NHS is currently administering the jabs — we can and should get straight back into school and rectify the damage that has been done to children’s education.