Schools are far more than mere exam factories. Across the UK, teachers in 32,000 schools and colleges care for children on over half the days in any given year. Or we did until the lockdown in March 2020. Since then, children have missed the best part of two full terms. And while they were out of our sight, some were at risk. Six year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, for example, may have been rescued from the terrible abuse he suffered had his teachers been able to see him every day.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a disaster for children. Lockdowns and school closures have impacted far more than their education, as the record number of calls to a British child-abuse helpline have revealed.
When Boris Johnson talked about trusting teachers, I suspected that the government must be desperate. Trust is not a word I have head much in my 25-year teaching career. I am no longer trusted to go into a GCSE exam hall to look at the paper that my class is sitting in case I somehow manage to undermine the integrity of the exam.
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.
Schools in January are usually full of life, but not this year. At the start of my day, I walk alone down silent corridors to an empty classroom. There are no children lined up outside; the bustle of school life is gone and the only voice I hear is my own.
The future became more uncertain for hundreds of thousands of youngsters this week when Gavin Williamson cancelled their GCSE exams. But pupils at some of Britain’s top public schools were affected less than their contemporaries in state maintained schools.
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.
Teachers and education support personnel must be prioritised in the roll-out of the vaccine.
England might be coming out of lockdown – some of it at least – but there is little cheer for students. This week’s government mandated ‘student travel window‘ will extinguish any vestiges of face-to-face teaching to allow students to Zoom out the term from parental homes. My son Barney is among the class of 2020, the group of students forking out high fees to be cooped up in their overpriced university accommodation, seeing few people apart from the flat mates they have been billeted with.
The decision to cancel next summer’s GCSE and A-Level exams in Wales has left teachers and pupils in uncharted waters. After Scotland scrapped its GCSE-equivalent National 5 exams in 2021 – opting for teacher assessments and coursework instead – England is under pressure to follow suit. But education secretary Gavin Williamson must stick to his guns and ensure that next year’s exams do go ahead.