As Covid-19 begins to weaken, there is a political reckoning gaining in strength. When it comes, the public will deserve something considerably wider, and more exacting, than the usual whitewash of a public enquiry. We need to put the whole sorry cast of characters involved in this national catastrophe on trial because when they were asked to serve their country they chose instead to serve themselves.
It could have been so different. Those in positions of power were gifted by the British public something more precious than a large majority: we gave them our goodwill. They threw it all away as they scrambled to dissemble, to cover up their endless indecisions and revisions. In a few short months we have gone from the Blitz spirit to spraying “racist” on Churchill’s statue. When that reckoning comes there will be many in the dock, answering to the tens of thousands of avoidable deaths, bankrupted businesses, and devastated communities.
And then there are the schools, which could be the longest-lasting and most shameful legacy of all. It is difficult to see who comes out of this particular mess well. Certainly not Ofqual, who hastily dumped GCSE and A levels assessments on unsuspecting teachers with a series of measures which are already looking unreliable. Nor the Department for Education: what was once a key department in government seems to be reduced to little more than a chaotic corner of Whitehall led by a figure with all the political nous of Frank Spencer, leaving whoopsie after whoopsie in Headteachers’ intrays.
Gavin Williamson is so over-promoted he makes Priti Patel look like Clement Attlee. Daily we see obfuscation and confusion, policy so hastily amended that it teeters between the comical and the unworkable: children being allowed back to school, but not allowed back, being taught and then not being taught, fed but not fed. It is a reign of error. But beneath all this is a deep sea of desperate failure, of millions of children doing no school work at all, month after month. All progress stopped. You hope you have reached rock bottom when a multi-millionaire footballer feels compelled to take the moral high ground and quickly shame the government into yet another U-turn. Of course there is no bottom to this sea, but if there was, you’d find the teaching unions there, like inverted lanternfish, spreading their own particular form of despair and darkness.
The largest fish – the National Education Union (NEU) – was formed when the old, leftist, National Union of Teachers (NUT) swallowed up the smaller Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). When this happened, the moderate voice of the classroom died. The NEU became a Corbyn-supporting organisation that was happy to throw 30,000 of its independent school members under a big, red bus at the last election as they enthusiastically endorsed the Labour Party and its reckless plans to abolish the sector, jobs and all. Now, under the questionable claim to be “representing its members” the NEU fights for every school gate to remain locked, knowing full well the lasting social damage this does to many of the most vulnerable people in society.
Students from lower-income backgrounds, and from ethnic minorities, are disproportionately suffering from the pandemic. Schools are places of learning, but seeing them as only that is reductive: they are places of safety, of equality and opportunity, where thousands of children are given a healthy diet, allowed to exercise, shower, go online, have access to basic facilities that they would otherwise have to share, or not have at all.
When they most craved normality, to stay in touch with their teachers and classmates, the NEU’s leader Mary Bousted said that “teachers should not be … routinely marking work”, and in a predictable lack of ambition she said – only one week into lockdown – that “we cannot educate the nation’s children and young people remotely”. The NEU didn’t even try to narrow the digital divide; instead they turned away from those who needed them most.
In contrast, the independent schools, with their greater resources, and their relative freedom from unions, raced ahead, offering 74% of their students live-streamed lessons (compared with only 6% in the state sector), as well as marking their work, providing pastoral support, and even parent meetings. Some formed partnerships with those many state schools who ignored the jeremiahs in the NEU, preferring instead to rise to the challenges and continue teaching. There are thousands of teachers who want to try every measure possible to help their students.
How did we get here? How have teaching unions become so riddled with political dogma that they seek to destroy the jobs of many of their members, as well as actively contribute to the social injustices they so loudly proclaim to oppose? Instead of trying to find solutions to the damage being done to every child who is separated from their teacher they instead choose to write letters to Boris Johnson on how to fight racism.
Whatever reckoning comes it will surely show that the teaching unions are like red wedges rammed between our young people and their futures: they are divisive and incapable of supporting school communities through this crisis. They should be reinvented. We need professional organisations that put their schools first, and that includes the interests of their children, their families and their teachers. Teaching unions should be de-politicised, so that they have no allegiance to one party: their commitment, instead, should be to learning, research, forming partnerships across sectors, healing political and social divisions, rather than exacerbating them. They should be torn down from their plinths of self-interest and complacency.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe