A Journal of The Plague Year 2020

Week 14, June 19th

Spot the difference

One is articulate, community driven, and responsible and the other is hopelessly out of his depth

Amidst all of the hopeless Tory floundering over their pathetic handling of the pandemic, such that even hardened liars have started to look a little embarrassed at the nonsense Cummings has told them to spout, they have inadvertently stumbled on a get-out-jail-free card, like Bilbo in the tunnels under The Misty Mountains finding the ring of power in the darkness. (apologies – there will be no further fey Lord of the Rings type references in the remainder of this blog) And to their great relief, it’s a combination of bogeymen that they are very familiar with. Buried deep in the Tory psyche, is the fundamental conviction that The British People  (Pompous voice, serious expression) love bashing the unions and in particular, they love bashing teachers unions’ and Local Authorities (sometimes known as “Communists” and “Soviets”). So, at PM questions this week (shortly to be renamed, “Are you talkin’ to me?”) the execrable LiarMan Johnson was wetting himself with joy at his cunning wheeze for ignoring the questions by asking a load of his own. The use of the word “Asking” in this context is a little misleading. “Asking” implies complete sentences but The Great Orator will not be tied down by the restrictions imposed by Standard English Grammar. Those sort of rules are for losers and oiks. Bellowed single words, Latin phrases, and the stamping of feet takes Boris right back to the good old days at The Bullingdon club.

This was compounded by Robert Halfon at the Education select committee asking the unions (Mary Bousted, I think) why Students could go shopping in Primark but not go to school. Halfon is usually one of the more sympathetic Tories, someone who does a passable impersonation of a human being most of the time, so this intervention was particularly disappointing. It really does not take a lot of brain power to work out that easing the lockdown on shops is a question for his boss to answer, not the teaching unions. In the great new Tory spirit of nothing being their responsibility, they seem both baffled and outraged that the situation in schools is no more than the consequences arising from a responsible following through of the Government’s own safety  guidelines for Covid 19. Sorry guys, it’s not a Union plot, no matter how convenient that would have been for you.

Then came the Great Tory Plan for saving a generation of students, probably purchased on line from the same CunningPlans ‘R Us store as the one they were supposed to have in place for Social Care. Oh, and the one for a comprehensive free trade deal (both “oven-ready” plans, if memory serves me well). This involves a startled looking Gavin Williamson, announcing a scheme to give one to one tuition next year so that no student will fall behind. Apart from the ones whose names are already down for a zero hours contract opportunity, when they leave school, because they don’t really count. Until Daniel Rashford (keep up, Mr Hancock!) gets wind of it, then at the last minute they will really, really count and will all be promised scholarships to Oxbridge, instead. Until everyone has forgotten about it, after we all get back from Tuscany in October.

The defenders of the Working Classes

This is a classic Tory response to a situation they have fundamentally misunderstood and then misrepresented. It is infuriating that it appears that, emerging from the mist, oven ready, so to speak, are teachers, to take on the role of Tory scapegoat. The narrative goes something like this. Lockdown and continued school closure is a tragedy for the life chances of young people. It is doing irreparable damage to their education and therefore to their eventual outcomes and prospects. It is doing particular damage to the lives of those working – class kids. You know, the ones the Tories really care about so much. Well, when Marcus Rashford tells them to. In order to mitigate the damage inflicted on young people by Marxists and Trade unions, teachers must give up some of their holidays, or work at the weekends for the next year so that the kids can catch up what they’ve missed. So much education has been lost, they say. So much Damage has been done, they say. Decent ordinary teachers want to work themselves into the ground to make things right, but they are being held back by the Socialist teaching unions, who, rumour has it, aren’t patriotic and think Churchill was a racist. (They do tend to get a bit confused, after a while. I think this is called “Cognitive overload”)

This, as you have probably gathered, drives me mad.

Lockdown and non-attendance at school has not done “irreparable damage” to the vast majority of students.

Learning has not been “Lost”, like a piece of PE kit without a name tag. It may well have been delayed, but it’s definitely not “Lost”

The idea of lost learning comes from a confusion about the distinction between learning and covering a set curriculum. Learning is vital. Covering a set curriculum to an arbitrary timescale and set of assessment criteria is as important as we deem it to be. And in this situation, that’s not very.

Two groups of students have suffered terribly during this period: Those at risk in child protection  terms and those whose mental health has worsened because of the lack of opportunities to socialise with their peers and adults other than those in their close family. It is vital that these children get back into school as quickly as possible, not to be crammed with the knowledge they have missed learning, but to experience positive interactions, whether that be play or discussion, with others.

The Tory plan to plug the gaps of what has been missed, by first testing, supposedly to identify “Gaps” and then by “catch up” programmes before and after school, at weekends and in the holidays is a dreadful, unimaginative, useless response to this unprecedented situation. More than anything else, children need to go back to normal. The situation envisaged in September is not normal. It piles pressure on staff and students after the extraordinary challenge that the pandemic has presented. In short, it’s the worst of all possible worlds.

One to one tuition can make a contribution, but it can also mess things up even more. Unknown tutors, teaching a programme uncalibrated to the needs of the school, the class and the individual, with little accountability is potentially a huge waste of money. And, at the risk of being cynical, who exactly will trouser the vast sums of money being talked about? The Government has specified that they will control the provision of accredited tutors from approved Tuition companies. And guess who will own those little beauties? Friends and family of The Conservative Party. And donors, of course. Some people will get a tidy little wedge from this “crisis”.

And, of course, if you think about this situation in terms of lost learning, you are immediately in crisis territory, leading to a panicked response. The minute you start to think of it as simply learning delayed, the crisis evaporates (notwithstanding the two groups mentioned above) and a rational plan can emerge.

Let me suggest my alternative. If education is so important, if the learning that would have taken place needs to be achieved, if the Government is prepared to spend considerable sums of money on this, then why not just repeat the year?

That’s right – Repeat the year.

No additional pressure. Going over some of the same ground will reinforce learning. Repeating will allow time for greater depth, nay, even mastery.

In Primary you could either keep the Year 6 children and devise the most thrilling transition programme ever. Reception would be deferred for a year because International best practice from those jurisdictions we so admire, is to give children more playing time by starting formal education at least a year later than the UK. Or, to avoid their disappointment, they could transition, and do their interim programme in secondary before staring the Year 7 curriculum. The departed Year 11s means that there is physical space in the schools, as usual.

This way you would cover the curriculum, but without a panicked sense of rush that “Catch up” implies. And students going on the Higher Education would do so, but just a year later than usual. No big loss there. People have been doing gap years for decades now, so it can’t do any damage, surely.

This is not quite a back of the fag packet solution. I have actually turned over and gone on to the front as well. But I do recognise that inevitably, there will be lots of things that my brilliant solution does not account for. But I imagine, given the adversarial nature of Twitter and Social media in general, that there will shortly be a tsunami of people telling me how dim I am not to have considered X, Y and particularly Z.

I’m looking forward to it.

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