The stage is set for a showdown. In normal circumstances, 4 or 5 January would have been the first day back at school. Instead, the English system is in chaos, with the National Education Union advising its members not to turn up on grounds of safety, and headteachers going to court to demand that the government release the evidence behind its decision to reopen primaries in many areas.
Uncertainty surrounds plans for mass testing in secondaries, since schools lack both spare staff and training, while the current priority list for vaccinations could keep teachers waiting for months. Councils including those in Birmingham and Brighton have already swung behind a switch to online learning. The Northern Irish and Scottish governments have similar plans in place.
On Sunday, Boris Johnson sought to deflect blame for this growing crisis on to the mutation of the virus. But the truth is that his government has lost the confidence not only of teachers but also of a large portion of the wider group of stakeholders (parents, local politicians, heads) that makes up school communities. Given the enormously important role of education settings in minimising the many harms to children caused by the pandemic, this failure of leadership deserves to be judged harshly.
Putting things right must be the top priority. Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the education select committee, has said that plans for vaccination should be revisited, and he is right. Particularly in early years and primary schools, where social distancing is impractical, teachers are entitled to protection as soon as possible. Those in vulnerable groups should always have been allowed to work from home. The botched provision of laptops and tablets to those who need them must be stepped up. Serious discussions about alternatives to next year’s exams must start now.
Of course, the logistics are difficult. The policy questions (which extend to university admissions as well as exam boards and classrooms) are even more so. The past year has seen a huge increase in inequalities, with private schools – and some more privileged state ones – able to offer more education remotely, due to smaller class sizes, greater access to technology and fewer vulnerable families to worry about. How to “level up” following this disaster is not a question with an easy answer. Should pupils who have fallen a long way behind, for example, be allowed to repeat a year? Additional funding for catch-up tuition is a drop in the ocean.
Labour, disappointingly, has offered little in the way of a response to such injustices. On Sunday, Sir Keir Starmer stopped short of calling for all schools to stay shut, to avoid unplanned disruption. But the government’s performance has been dismal and hamstrung by a refusal to treat teachers and headteachers as the experts that they are. Since the debacle of last summer’s failed attempt to mark exams with an algorithm, ministers have staggered from insult to U-turn and back again, even as other senior figures, including the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, have offered teachers morale-boosting support. This approach by ministers reached its nadir last month, when they launched legal action against Greenwich council for proposing to close schools early only to decide that, with almost 3% of 11‑ to 16-year-olds infected, the plan was correct.
The bossing and bullying that led to the current standoff cannot be laid solely at the feet of the miscast education secretary, Gavin Williamson. Nick Gibb has been a schools minister since 2010. The former education secretary Michael Gove is among the most powerful men in the country, and Dominic Cummings worked for him before he worked in Downing Street. The pandemic schools policy has been made at the heart of government.
The heightened exposure of societal weaknesses over the past year has been widely noted. It has never been clearer that, in England, these include a government locked into a disrespectful attitude to state education. Mr Gove famously, and rudely, described teachers and unions as “the blob”. But it is ministers who have revealed themselves as incapable of reacting intelligently to challenging circumstances. We can only hope that the new year will teach them a lesson.