At school and later at college I often asked teachers why they chose their profession, the answer was usually something along the lines of “making a difference”. It is doubtless that a good education is the key to greater equality of opportunity and this fact is not lost on teachers. This makes the decision of the National Education Union (NEU) not to engage with the government on plans to bring primary school children back from June 1 all the more baffling.
There are many valid concerns with regard to the re-opening of Britain’s schools. The protection of staff should, of course, be of prime importance. Older teachers and those who are vulnerable should be supported in whatever way possible and should not be forced to return to school too soon. The safety of children too is important but thankfully, COVID-19 seems to have very little impact on the very young; the British Medical Journal reports that the fatality rate for those aged 9 and under is 0.0016%. There are roadblocks but it is “engagement” that will bring about a solution to staff concerns, not abdication from this all important conversation.
This is not the first time that the NEU has attempted to obfuscate education during the COVID pandemic. There are have been reports of teachers being advised to refuse even to mark work sent digitally, where there is, of course, no risk of virus transmission. The effect this has on increasing the attainment gap is clear, as those in private schooling are twice as likely to use online lessons every day than their peers in state schools, according to the Sutton Trust. Meanwhile, research in America has suggested that eight year olds there could lose more than a year’s worth of maths attainment by the time they return to school. The effect of school closures is far more acute on those from the poorest backgrounds who need the schools to open again the most.
Given all this, it appears that the NEU is not behaving responsibly or in the best interests of the education system. One may speculate that they are trying to show up a Tory government they disagree with. But now is not the time to exacerbate ideological differences. From suggestions to spray disinfectant at children like in totalitarian China to the current plan “not to engage” the NEU appears either hopelessly out of its depth or simply mendacious. In our current discourse the phrase “playing politics with peoples lives” is thrown around. The NEU is playing politics with children’s life chances.