May 18, 2020 11.36 am This story is over 49 months old

John Marriott: School’s out, but for how much longer?

“Staying safe has still got to be our number one priority”

Back in the 1970s Alice Cooper had a big hit with the song, as the first line of the chorus goes: “School’s out for Summer”. Many people think that’s what should be happening to our nation’s schools while infection rates for COVID-19 are still too high for comfort. For some, I suppose, a more appropriate and worrying response might be the second line; “School’s out forever”! But let’s be sensible, hey? For many parents, running out of ideas on how to entertain their offspring (imagine if you had a class full of them to deal with) and some itching to get back to work and fearing that, unless we open up soon, there won’t be that many jobs to go back to, the lockdown here can’t be slackened soon enough.

Yes, going without vital education at all age levels, but particularly in the first few formative years, is not ideal. However, given that most youngsters on the continent don’t begin formal education until the age of seven and don’t appear to be unduly disadvantaged, a few more months away while we see what happens as our European neighbours, who have been ahead of us in planning and lockdown anyway, try to return to a semblance of what we used to call normality, surely won’t hurt us. Who knows? By September we might possibly have an effective vaccine and, if not, possibly a more effective treatment for COVID-19. We can but hope.

Now I know that the teachers’ unions (and there are quite a few of them with no compulsion to join) have come in for a bit of stick regarding their stance on reopening schools. I am someone who joined a union (then called just the National Association of Schoolmasters – NAS) when he began his teaching career in 1966 and is still a member of the NAS/UWT’s Retired Members’ Association today, and someone, who was very active in Trades Union affairs before first becoming a councillor in 1987. I know what a vital role they have played in my professional lifetime in fighting for a fair deal for teachers, in terms of pay and conditions, and much, much more.  However, they need to tread carefully as they are in danger of contributing to the popular held belief that theirs is a rather cushy number.

I’ve been away from the chalk face too long (nearly 20 years to be precise) to know exactly what is going on in schools today. However, it’s safe to say that at the moment it’s certainly not business as usual. So perhaps those teachers, who may be sitting at home on full pay, as employees of the government after all, ought to have been furloughed on 80% pay like so many of their fellow citizens. We keep being told that we are all in it together. As for retirees like me, on their triple locked state and index linked final salary occupational pensions, let’s at least means test that triple lock for starters, and let’s most of us pay more income tax to start to help repay the massive debt our country has run up in recent months, with more to come, believe me.

You see, the jury is out at the moment regarding whether particularly younger children can catch and spread the virus without showing symptoms. So, in my opinion, we ought to be better safe than sorry. After all, our PM told us a week ago to stay ”alert”. Well, if that means being careful, I’ll vote for that. I appreciate that keeping schools closed for all but the children of key workers will not be easy and could affect our economic recovery, but life is all about risk assessment, and staying safe has still got to be our number one priority at the moment. If we are sure that all precautions have been taken, including adequate testing and tracing, then perhaps an earlier phased reopening of schools can be justified.

It appears that some Multi Academy Trust (MAT) Chiefs are keen to reopen, while many Local Education Authorities are more wary. Well, let’s see what happens if the former do go ahead and just hope that things work out. If the virus makes a comeback, then, who do we blame this time? Lincolnshire has always encouraged its schools effectively to go independent as so called ‘academies’ and a majority clearly have done so. When I refer to academies as ‘independent’ I, of course, mean that they are directly responsible to the Education Secretary and not the Local Education Authority (LEA). We could be in for a few test cases of who actually controls education in England at least, where academy students could be back in the classroom while students in LEA schools could still be at home, possibly driving their responsible adults to distraction.

Of course I could be wrong and many MATs may err on the side of caution; but in this age of ‘dog eat dog’, league table and exam obsessed education, where not letting your competitors steal a march on you for fear of societal and particularly parental retribution is the norm, I have my doubts. As far as Lincolnshire is concerned, I would expect the Tory led County Council to do its government’s bidding, whereas, in Labour controlled authorities we might be in for a trial of strength, with parents and their offspring unfortunately caught in the middle.

John was a councillor for thirty years, finally retiring in 2017. A schoolteacher by profession, he served on the North Hykeham Town Council (1987-2011), the North Kesteven District Council (1987-1999, 2001-2007) and the Lincolnshire County Council (2001-2017). He was also a County Council member of the former Lincolnshire Police Authority for eight years until standing down in 2009. In 1997 he was the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham. He is currently not a member of any political party.