activism Corbyn economics Election Labour NHS Politics Privatisation

You know schools, right?

Sorry for the bar room tone of the title, but it seems to me to match the level of thinking we have been getting from our government.

I have huge sympathy with the people who have been agitating all along to keep/get the schools open.

I have huge sympathy with the people who want the schools shut until we’re sure we’re safe.

I have huge sympathy with the people who think the whole idea of schools should be torn up and re-invented.

Here’s why…

What we have found out

Open the schools, fund the schools

Many communities, especially those that have become pits of social and financial deprivation due to the degradation of local authorities and funding, were depending on schools to keep children fed, healthy and safe. There are horrendous reports now coming out of the dangers and disasters that are befalling children in these areas during lock-down. If we are going to go on like this, we need to provide schools with the funds and the specialist staff to deal with all the community problems that have fallen into their laps because no-one else is dealing with them.

Keep the schools closed, fund everything else

It’s obvious that we need to close schools, and as many other institutions as possible, until the experts in *that* field have worked out how to deal with the virus and related problems so, having learned what our kids are going through, a responsible government would be urgently and actively re-funding and re-staffing the NHS, social services, community police, housing officers and all the other departments (not private contractors please, they have proved to be useless and expensive) – government or local authority departments that would, if they had the resources, be dealing with the problems those children are facing and – obviously – we need legislation to assure that wages and working conditions are functioning in a way that allows young adults to set up home, and find the time and resources necessary to bring up their children properly.

Ian Lavery MP points out why many people are not coping.

But it would appear that the only thing concerning the government is how they handle a cohort of kids who are all in different places on their national education data sheets, kids who are not in the habit of functioning in a group and following orders. Faced with a situation that doesn’t fit on their spread sheets, government ministers flip-flop between micro-management and hand-waving laissez faire in a way tailored to guarantee rage in teachers and parents alike.

Catch up with what?

Or – why school culture is bad for your kids

Closing schools made precious little difference to home-educating families. Those who aren’t familiar with the idea probably formed their notions of what home-schooling is long before it became something desperate parents resorted to when schools could not provide for their children. No longer middle class ‘hippy’ types, most home-schooling parents hauled their lives into a new shape with great difficulty because their children have special needs and their schools were poorly resourced to respond. Many of those who home-school now, whether by choice or because of special needs say the term itself is somewhat outdated. ‘Community education’ would be a more appropriate description. They band together, join local gyms, libraries and arts and science projects, and endeavour to teach their children what they are capable of learning in a way they are capable of learning it.

The biggest problem I see with such education is that it’s often impossible for people who don’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, or who have to work long hours, to take part.

When the schools closed, the children in those families who were engaged in non-school education carried on their education pretty much as before, except that their group work had to move onto zoom. The problems they do have went right on as before – the difficulty of getting officials who contacted them to understand what education was, the difficulty of securing places and facilities for the kids to sit exams and the complete irrelevance to them of government guidance and directives – but overall, home-schooling proved itself during lockdown to be far, far better adapted to the modern world than most schools were.

Guardian headline about free broadband being needed for schooling, with caption "leave it Jez. They're not worth it."

For one thing, it’s a large part of why the government we weren’t allowed to have had free broadband for all as a headline policy, and it’s another area in which I really wish we had a government with the ability to look and learn.

What ‘home-school’ kids are suffering though, is the same thing all kids are currently suffering. They urgently need the time and the opportunity to rediscover and rebuild their social networks. I seriously hope the government doesn’t pursue that recently mooted idea of extending school hours so kids can ‘catch up’ – what, catch up with an imposed GCSE regime that has little to do with their actual lives? – they, just as much as their home-schooling friends, need time to catch up with their friends, their lives.

Through the portal

If only – If only we had had the government the majority of us did our best to bring in in 2017 (yes, majority – go find out, if you don’t know) we could take away the fines and the social pressures (poverty, overwork, inadequate housing etc) that force parents to send kids to school, and we could completely make over our schools, so that they were our hubs of community education: so that they provided shelter and routine every day to kids who needed those things, but also provided exam resources and sittings, labs, dance and recording studios, IT centres, libraries, orchestra, choir and team sports opportunities and above all, professional teachers, to everyone in the community who needed them (free at the point of use, naturally – because we believe in free education for all, don’t we?) Such schools would of course be staffed by experts on education, child development and safeguarding, but they would not have to be experts in health, social care, housing, social control and all the rest of it because we would have proper local authority departments assessing and doing the necessary in those specialities.

Teachers have been flooding into the NEU and other community-action organisations, seeking help, support and directions forward. In January, the NEU held what proved to be the biggest ever Trades Union meeting and made more sense in a couple of hours than the government has in months.

The biggest lesson

Above all, I think the lesson all of us – parents, teachers, kids, politicians, the voting public – need to take from this is that we won’t get given what we want, we won’t get told the whole truth – unless we take action, take responsibility, and start making the world we want to pass on to our children.


No ditch deep enough

As the UK pulls into position as a world-leader in COVID deaths, as the NHS, the legal system and the economy fall into chaos, as the Home Office scrabbles around trying to retrieve the latest batch of lost files, our PR-dependent government works day and night to keep all media voices and spaces filled with news of the one thing they are keeping pace with – vaccination centres. Twinned with their current obsession with trying to convince us that anything that goes wrong goes wrong because some people aren’t following the ever-changing government guidance, this suggests a desperate need to direct attention away from something…

I am really hoping that means it is still possible for ministers to make such a bad job of something that they get kicked out of their jobs.

Yes, Minister?

It used to be a subject for comedy, the way government ministers are constantly shunted into jobs heading departments they knew nothing about – but it was a joke back then. We knew that really, a minister does not have to be an expert in the subject area. They are supposed to be good at listening, rallying and directing, tuning their departments into the direction they’ve been elected to take them, leaving the subject-management and delivery- based decisions to those out-of-fashion types – experts in the field

No more.

Gavin Williamson

I acknowledge that focusing on one person may be a little unfair. Gavin Williamson is no more than a prize specimen of an era of government-by-guesswork. I am regarding him as a test case – are Conservative government ministers EVER bad enough at their actual job to sack? Yes, we’ve seen cheating, lying and general malpractice leading to ministers having to step down (eventually) but what about actually being so bad at your actual job, what if a minister has dug himself into a ditch so deep that no-one anywhere could mistake what he was doing for effective leadership?

In the run up to Christmas, when experts in virus control were saying schools were potentially a major spreader, the government threatened legal action against schools that wanted to close a few days early to make the Christmas holiday a more effective circuit-breaker. Williamson’s department did not tell schools what was expected of them after Christmas until halfway through the last day of term.

The aborted return

Then, when it had become patently obvious to just about everyone that schools shouldn’t kick off as normal after Christmas, Williamson decided that they should. And as the whole of education world tuned in to hear the announcement of return dates – that’s all they wanted, return dates – so they could actually start organising, in an extraordinary display of obliviousness, Williamson treated his infuriated audience to what felt like hours of flah about how education was a good thing and the government was good at it before announcing his seemingly random decisions about which schools would or would not be opening on the 5th January.

That moment must have seen the biggest simultaneous switch-off ever, as parents, teachers and school staff everywhere leapt into action to try and do three weeks work in one evening.

One day, we were back – one day, just enough to get the virus running round a horde of new little hosts, and then Williamson was finally forced to listen to the growing tide of teachers, doctors and trade unionists backing up the voices of the virus experts, and schools were closed again. Even those few who had wanted to take the risk and open all the schools were now infuriated by all the work the about-turn generated.

The sound and the fury were muted for a couple of weeks, as parents and teachers occupied every waking hour trying to sort out all the late-started plans the government last-minuteism had forced on them, but it’s back with extra flame now.

Pooled experience, blended learning

What expert timing true awfulness has! Having spent a lunchtime in a meeting where teachers discussed what they’ve learned and what they need to do now, and prepared a timetable with a good blend of live and recorded lessons and independent learning tasks, I spent the early evening in a huge, nationwide zoom where teachers everywhere were pooling ideas based on the same discoveries – that many kids thrive on some live learning but that very few kids benefit from dawn-to-dusk live instruction.

I emerged from that session full of ideas about using short online sessions to kick off good-quality independent work, and/or live lessons pointing to dip-in-and-out recorded materials, only to hear that Gavin Williamson, basing his idea on no known evidence whatsoever, had just announced that live learning was best and therefore the aim was to do it all the time.

Fuses blew. I ask now – is there any ditch deep enough that an expert-spurning, self-absorbed, arrogant, clueless, destruction-wreaking minister cannot be sacked for digging himself and his country into?

activism Corbyn economics Election Labour Politics Uncategorized

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