Five and a half months ago teachers were told that schools would be closed down a couple of days later; almost immediately after that, the nationwide lockdown was announced. To say that no one really knew what they were doing is an understatement. As teachers, our responsibility was clear: we had, somehow, to continue to supply some sort of education for our pupils. But how? We rushed around setting work to last the first two weeks, which would take us up till the Easter holidays. We still did not really believe that the closure would last much longer than that. Some suggested that it might last until the May half term, but the words we heard most often, from the Head, from the Government, were “we really just don’t know”.
During those last months, we did do our best. We set online work, we posted work home to those without internet, we rang our pupils if we had no online sight of them, we sent staff around to check on them, we rang again, and we worried. As months went by, we worried more and more about those who seemed to have “disappeared”. In many instances we could have guessed the children who would make no effort to work – usually the poor, the careless, the uncared for, the dispirited, the fearful. But the numbers of those children grew, and the press mocked or grew angry and said the teachers were having a ball, were being paid to do nothing. We seemed a sniff away from being blamed as much as the bats or pangolins which had set the whole sorry thing off.
Many of us kept up a school presence for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. But very few of these children took up their places. Reports gave the figure as only about five per cent at the beginning of lockdown, going as low as one per cent as time went on. In my own school, a comprehensive in a rural town, we had under 10 children most days, only one on one day – admittedly Good Friday, but don’t tell me they’d stayed off school to go to Church.
By the end of July children were beginning to be invited back to school in greater numbers – but it was still not obligatory. We were very proud at the large percentage of Year 10 children (the year before GCSEs, and therefore the first year group to be asked back in) who did come to school – even though it was only for three hours, one morning a week. We were also impressed by how many of them admitted to missing school, to realising how much it (and we) mattered.
But then came the exam crises: A levels in freefall, state sector children particularly affected. Forty per cent of results were down- graded from the teachers’ assessments – suggesting the Government had no trust in the teachers’ judgment, and preferred a “computer says” response to one by professionals who had known these students for two years or more. Those of us who teach up to GCSE watched in a panic, hoping something would give in the week before our results. Which it did. Without actually admitting to its massive failure, the Government changed its mind and went back to teacher assessments.
So what next? I do not know of a single teacher who does not believe that we should be back in school, in as “normal” a way as possible, on the first day of the September term. The unions may huff and puff – and up to a point it is their job to do so – but teachers in schools, working with children, know that we cannot in good conscience deprive the children of an education for any longer. For many of our children education is their only chance of an escape, and for too many the longer they are away from the rigours, the rituals and the discipline of school life the harder it will be for them to be back.
At the end of term we had eight children in a class (you’re as lucky as Etonians, we told them, to their bemusement). Hand sanitising, social distancing, one-way corridors were all put into place. The children emerged from lockdown baffled, blinking, hair wild and uniforms unnaturally pristine. There was a suppressed ferity to them that was alarming. They sat in silence, docile as though from fear. Is this what our return will be like?
Although the eerie calm was in some ways pleasing, I do not believe it will last. Children will come back to school with good intentions – they always do in September, even the naughtiest. But they will have lost the habit of learning and, more importantly, the habit of thinking. And I also fear that they will have lost any trust they had in the system. Let us hope that the teachers at least can regain that trust. The Government must earn it – or we will have a lost generation and the harmful repercussions of that will last a lifetime.