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Language Matters

What a week it’s been. This morning I woke up to the news that the children’s commissioner had said on the BBC that unions need to “stop squabbling” about opening schools on the 1st of June.

The choice of words was interesting, and no doubt deliberate. Squabbling implies that this is something trivial and childish. The underlying narrative is “look at these people, they work with children and now they’re behaving like them”.

I’ve watched the narrative shifting in the media as the week has progressed. Last Sunday’s “Blob” article in a poor excuse for a newspaper that I won’t even lower myself to name, followed by a completely unfounded article which said that teachers had been told to sabotage lessons by their unions on the afore unmentioned paper’s website was just the start. The usual bunch of “rent a mouthpiece” types have labeled teachers lazy, told them to “man up” and suggested that they just want an extended holiday.

The reality is a very different matter. I work with headteachers. I used to be one. One thing I will say about the job is that nobody quite knows what it is like until they have done the job. This is something that several deputies who have stepped up into acting head roles have told me. “I had no idea!” is an oft-repeated phrase. Nothing quite prepares you for their weight of responsibility that the job involves. You are essentially responsible for the safety and well being of every single child and member of staff in your school community. It is this responsibility which causes the sleepless nights, the absences even when you are present because you are thinking about a colleague, a child, or a family who you’re concerned about. The decisions you make impact so many lives, and that can be tremendously rewarding but also quite terrifying. This has always been the case, but never more so than in the last few months.

So the “lazy” narrative really doesn’t wash with me, and with most other people who actually have children in school at the moment. The vast majority know what schools have been doing in this crisis, know how hard leaders and teachers have worked to support the communities they serve and really don’t think that teachers are lazy at all. They’re in awe. They’re in awe of the teacher who walks miles every day to bring food parcels to hungry families, they’re in awe of the teacher planning online activities, marking and feeding back on work, making phone calls, planning and home educating their own children at the same time. They’re in awe of the head who gets up at 2 am to make the government’s unreliable school meal voucher system work and then goes to work with key worker children in between digesting the constantly changing guidance and planning to make the impossible possible. They’re in awe of the teachers and TAs who put themselves in the way of potential harm to ensure that key workers’ children are cared for. The teachers who have worked without a break since February half term and who have never questioned or queried the need to be in school for those children who are vulnerable or who need support.

Every single teacher I know, every nursery manager, every head, every nursery nurse, childminder and TA wants to be back at work. They miss the children. As someone who makes their living visiting schools I am missing the sense of community and purpose I get from my work, so I can only imagine how that feels for teachers and other people in schools. But, we also want to make sure that those we love and care for are safe.

We know we can not return to work in the same way as we worked before this virus took hold. So we need to know what our working environment is going to be like. We need time to plan to make sure everyone is kept as safe as can be. To ensure that The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992,The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 and The Control of Substance Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 are all being followed, in addition to the government guidelines. Most leaders will need time and advice to get to know this legislation well and how it impacts their decision making. We were told last Sunday that schools would reopen on the 1st of June, giving just 3 weeks to prepare. However, the first set of guidance on this was not released until the end of the 11th of May, with further guidance being issued on the 12th, the 14th and 15th. The guidance for the EY sector was updated on the 15th, is contradictory and appears to contradict the school guidance issued the previous day. It was released on a Friday evening. The DFE have so far not responded to any questions about this guidance and we are now 2 weeks away from June the 1st.

So, we have 2 weeks to prepare ourselves for the most challenging set of circumstances that schools and settings have ever faced. It is neither childish or churlish to expect better guidance when so many lives are in the hands of leaders and managers. Decisions need to be made from a well-informed perspective, with clear guidance and support. In a measured and timely fashion. Not rushed through without sufficient understanding of the scientific knowledge used to inform decisions. The BMA has expressed concern about opening schools before it is safe to do so. The current guidance is contradictory and is usually released in an evening, rendering all the plans made earlier in the day useless. Yet the narrative persists. “Stop squabbling”.

 I suspect that the government always knew the target for opening schools was ambitious, if not impossible, but now they can blame “squabbling teachers” for “sabotaging” the plans. I’m a parent myself. I want teachers and leaders who make informed decisions that keep my children safe. I want those decisions to be informed by experts in their field, not by politicians who are playing to party donors who want to get their workforce back, no matter what the human cost.  I want heads to be able to say, hand on heart to their staff, “we have done everything we can to ensure you are safe”. I want them to be able to comply with the relevant safety legislation so they don’t spend the next few years living in fear of litigation. Most of all I want children’s safety and well being to be at the heart of decision making. I understand that the economy needs to grow again, but not at the cost of human life.  I also suspect that the government knows that most people are in awe of the work done by leaders and teachers over the last few months. I wonder if they are aware that many parents agree with the many teachers and scientists who say that sending the youngest children, who struggle to distance themselves socially, back into schools and settings in two weeks before we know it is safe to do so, is probably not the best idea.


I’m disappointed to see some in the profession using the same rhetoric as the politicians. “squabbling”, “fear-mongering”, “sabotaging”, “being difficult” are all phrases I’ve seen being used by leaders when others have asked for clarification and better guidance. It is unhelpful and divisive. I am disappointed with the number of suspicious accounts that have sprung up on twitter, “teachers” who appear to know little about how schools work but are pushing the same narrative and agenda. Disappointed but not surprised, as we know this is how these things work.

 But my disappointment can not destroy my admiration for the professionals who are asking all the right questions. Not because they’re being difficult, but because they know that this isn’t a squabble. This is life and death. The decisions made in the next two weeks will have a huge impact on the lives of people in their communities for many years to come. Neil Postman said, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see”. The work of schools and childcare provders impacts on society like the ripples made by dropping a stone in a pond. The decisions to be made in the coming weeks are momentous. I for one am very glad that most of the leaders making the decisions are not swayed by media spin and hype or the need to please the right people in the right places. But by the strong moral purpose that puts children and families at the heart of everything they do. Thank you, I really do appreciate it.

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