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Facing the front or facing reality?

By 2nd July 2020Blog

Well now we know what will work when schools fully reopen. Gavin Williamson has spoken and I am sure that we are all relieved by that, or perhaps not.   I certainly  harbour a few reservations and thought that I might see if anyone else had similar feelings.

Essentially, Mr Williamson wants pupils facing forward, presumably in rows, and he even comes up with the radical concept that they should be “paying attention”. I am sure teachers across the land are wishing that they had thought of that

My initial  reservation is why he is not actually doing his real job rather than being an education adviser. That real job is to support the system and help it to work.  It is not to tell teachers how to lay out classrooms unless there are overwhelming health reasons for so doing.

The support for the system  would normally involve tasks like ensuring effective planning so that there was an adequate supply of teachers for all sectors, stages and subjects. It would involve ensuring an equitable and adequate distribution of funding and resources to ensure that all schools could meet the needs of the young people and families whom they serve. It would also involve ensuring that we had decent school buildings across the country so that every child and every teacher was in a classroom fit for purpose and equipped for learning in the 21st Century. Despite recent promises, which may or may not be less vacuous than so many other promises that have been made, successive Secretaries of Education in England have failed to deliver on all of these basic tasks. One wonders if they might have done better in these core tasks if they weren’t investing so much time and energy in telling teachers how to do their job.

Whatever the answer to that question, Mr Williamson is not being held to account for his failures and the failures of his department and these failures are both long-term and short-term. One might have thought that, before he began to pontificate on pedagogy, he might have found the odd minute to ensure that schools had clear guidance on how to manage the complex challenges that they are facing. Oddly that seems to me to more aligned with his role, particularly when the challenges were so intense.

Laura McInerey,, who has been a beacon of common sense and clarity throughout the current crisis – and any other time as well! – summed up what schools faced brilliantly in a recent RSA discussion, Paraphrasing her, schools in England closed at short notice and reopened two days later as child care facilities for the children of key workers and for the most vulnerable children, a food factory responsible for ensuring that no child went hungry, with a voucher scheme that might be generously described as chaotic, and as an online centre for learning. Presumably Mr Williamson was too taken up with his research into school effectiveness and teaching approaches to provide either the recognition or support that schools needed to deliver on the untenable demands he, and his government, were making of them.

One can only assume that the strategy was to get people facing anywhere as long as they were facing away from the reality of what was going on in schools

Yet, remarkably amidst all of this chaos, many schools rallied, got on with it and went the extra miles and distinguished themselves quietly in serving their communities. Heads were innovative, imaginative and often out of pocket. School Business Leaders wrought miracles. Staff in all roles pitched in and they made a difference for families and communities. Unfortunately, appreciation does not seem to have been the Secretary of State’s priority. Of course, he said thanks, but it often seemed as hypocritical as when he and his colleagues clapped for the carers whom they were leaving under-funded and under-equipped to save lives.

Having got the hollow “thank yous” out of the way,  Mr Williamson could then get on with harassing schools into a partial reopening so well planned that it collapsed almost instantly. The Prime Minister made schools his cause celebre during Prime Minister’s Question Time demanding to know Keir Starmer’s position on it. Starmer clearly had not received the memo about facing the front and insisted on facing reality and kept mithering on that any further developments would work better if there was more listening and meaningful consultation with the people responsible for delivering on the PM’s plans.

Why on earth would we do that? If the government really aligned with the education unions or other bodies, they would lose the possibility of blaming them for any failure. It fits so well with the culture of “never apologise, never explain”.

Whatever one thinks of Mr Williamson’s advice, and I will turn to that in my next blog, we need to face the reality of what is going on. We have a government in England which does not see itself as accountable, but is utterly determined to hold schools accountable. It will apparently tell us how to teach, which evidence we should follow and how we should manage our schools. Everyone has to face the front, listen and take on the messages. Heaven forfend that we demand that Mr Williamson does his real job effectively, supportively and collaboratively.

And it doesn’t have to be this way. Whatever reservations one might have, the Scottish and Welsh governments have tried to work with schools, set reasonable targets and give due recognition to the need to plan properly and prepare thoroughly. These are difficult times and all governments make mistakes, but the risk of error is always reduced when they are clear about their role and deliver on it.