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Follow the Leader

Write hard and clear about what hurts – Ernest Hemingway

Mass testing, mass restrictions or mass contradictions – Who do we follow?

Just like so many people, my Christmas plans were ruined with the new Tier system. But perspective is everything and yesterday another 744 deaths were announced. This is rather frighteningly with the 28-day cut off, so during the last lockdown. I found myself increasingly angrier by the day which was consolidated by yet another out-of-body experience; the Daily COVID briefing from Downing Street. Let’s make no bones about it, this country NEVER had control over the pandemic.

2020 has been the year where so many of us have made heart-breaking sacrifices and if missing Eid was not hard enough, Christmas has thrown us a new curve ball. All sentiment aside, the elephant in the room is schools. What does the government do? Education is the political arena for policy makers to project their ideological agendas and flex their zealousness. In this neo-liberal market place that is now education, the pandemic has exposed the gaps which are now enormous chasms and canyons. The pre-COVID damage cannot have a bandage placed over it as this pandemic has melted all that is certain into thin air.

Head teachers up and down the country are beyond anxious, constantly having to deal with moving goal-posts, ill-direction and last minute guidelines from the DfE. Our Education Secretary and Schools Minister assess the situation from a vantage point of comfort and detachment. Teaching unions are labelled as “militant” for seeking assurances on safety. Finally, teachers themselves are branded as “lazy” if they dare complain and “political” if they dare question education policies. This political merry-go-round exists against the backdrop of rising COVID cases, tighter restrictions, a faltering economy, UNICEF and Marcus Rashford intervening to feed our most disadvantaged children and Britain having the highest death toll in Europe. This is simply abhorrent for the 6th richest country in the world.

With Johnson, Sunak, Patel, Gove, Williamson, Hancock, Van Tam, Harries, Whitty, Vallance, Starmer and I could go on, there is no real leadership is there? So, who do we follow? In regards to schools, we are not really following anything but ideology it seems. Images: Kent Online, Times, Pink News and UK News

I am an avid viewer of the Downing Street briefings (please don’t ask why I put myself through the pain). Just like so many of us, I walk away feeling cheated, lied to and gaslighted. No matter who leads them, these briefings are filled with political rhetoric, watered down ideological language and rarely have public health at heart. I patiently wait for one of the experts (especially Jonathan Van Tam) to mention schools and then I react. The briefings alone are an experience in themselves but the mixed messages, that is what is causing mass confusion and such discontent amongst the public, especially educators. From my own analysis, I have some non-exhaustive points of discussion.

Schools – COVID Factories?

Between April and September, Gavin Williamson continued to tell us that schools are someone miraculously COVID free. On the eve of schools reopening for September, Williamson said, “I would urge you to keep in mind that all four of our country’s chief medical officers, including [chief medical officer for England] Chris Whitty, are unanimous in believing the health risk posed by Covid-19 to children is extremely low.”

At this stage, we were all “eating out with Rishi” and it appeared the number of cases and deaths had fallen significantly. The celebratory sentiment of the government could not be more evident as national lockdown restrictions had been lifted. As teaching unions continued to be caricatured as “Marxist”, they pleaded with the DfE to intervene and plan the 2020-21 academic year more carefully, schools still reopened. Williamson was so assured schools were safe that all year groups returned in September and vast social mixing was visible in schools even with social distancing measures in place. In fact, according to Worldometres, on August 31st there were 1,406 new cases and COVID-19 had claimed 41,501 lives by this stage. Some six week later when my school had broken up for October half-term, the number of cases skyrocketed to 20,890 and an additional 3,489 had been announced over this six week period. Of course, reopening schools and rising cases/deaths is an easy and somewhat nebulous correlation but it not one that we can totally rule out. The situation actually got so bad that the Independent SAGE group actually called for a circuit-breaker lockdown during October half-term which was ignored and during this term the WHO actually notified the government about a new variant of COVID. I bet they didn’t tell you that at the daily briefings did they?

One thing that remains clear is that the number of cases and deaths has increases exponentially since schools reopened in September. Whether we like it or not, the only logical way to tackle this pandemic is to reduce the numbers of people in circulation to stop the spread. This includes children who do carry and spread the virus. A viable and sustainable long-term strategy is required where the government liaise with school leaders, local authorities and vested stakeholders to intervene as clearly the current state of affairs is simply not working.

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One thing I love about Professor Van Tam is his subtle ability to embed integrity into his words. Back in September, JVT were openly said that infection rates are rising fastest in: confined spaces, close contact, crowded areas, extended duration of contact and volume (singing, shouting, etc). Implicitly or explicitly, Van Tam described a modern day school/classroom. This came days after Williamson giving the green flag for schools to reopen. So, which one is it gents? Are schools COVID-free zones or as the data and clearly the experts tell us, are they breading grounds for this virus? Are we actually following the science?

By November, the number of cases and deaths began to get out of hand by November when the PM called for a national lockdown which excluded education settings. Despite, at this stage, ONS data showing that COVID cases were spreading fastest in education settings, schools remained open. Data continued to show that cases were rising and daily deaths were hitting 500/600 a day. When we watched on at Italy in March and prayed nothing like this would happen in Britain, nine months on this country is world-beating, well Euro-beating in deaths. However, the political agenda to “save Christmas” began to take precedence but the setting where COVID was spreading uncontrollably remained off topic and a taboo for policy makers. But the confusion continued…

Leaks to the press meant the last week of term was, well you know, unprecedented. Apparently teachers will now be trained to administer COVID tests! Who actually knows? Yet, when guidelines are sent out the night or weekend before the term starts or ends, do you blame school leaders for feeling so frustrated? When the term had ended, Matt Hancock in an interview with Sky News openly said, “we need to do everything to stop the spread in school-age children now.” Yet, Williamson told us, “there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school.” Check your notes, Gavin. Your data comes from April to August when schools were in-part closed, thus making this inference is like sneezing into a face mask and calling it moisturiser. Hancock had contradicted Williamson, for Chris Whitty to say that COVID spreads in “biologically advantageous “ conditions which Van Tam once described as essentially being schools. Then yesterday, Jenny Hardies claimed that teachers are at no greater risk than anyone else, which is backed by Whitty’s comments that teaching is not a high-risk occupation. Most school leaders would struggle to get their head around this.

The farrago of confusion and misleading ideological wordplay from the experts and politicians provides no peace whatsoever for those teachers and support staff who have had to self-isolate and the families of those who are grieving. It is gaslighting beyond epic proportion to say that schools do not spread COVID when you have all the necessary ingredients for this virus to breed. Namely, poorly ventilated and crowded areas, close contact, and duration of time. Isn’t it time we followed the science? You know, the science that is sanitised of ideological point-scoring and “world-beating” jargon? The science that will actually save lives?

Disadvantaged Children

Closing schools has always been somewhat of a non-negotiable under the veneer of “disadvantaged children are falling behind.” The same disadvantaged children who have had to live under the crippling decade of austerity that has seen mainline services cut, university tuition fees tripled and schools chronically underfunded. Yes, the disadvantaged children! The same disadvantaged children our Education Secretary voted against feeding over half-term?

I am still in disgust that the sixth richest country in the world cannot provide meals let alone adequate resources for learning to moved online to protect communities from COVID-19. This is a damning indictment of the society we live in, the inequalities that have perpetuated and prospered and repeated failure of successive governments to solve child poverty. Although teachers and social commentators will be branded as “political” if they are up in arms about inequality, when did keeping others safe and providing them equality of opportunity become political? As previously stated, the unwillingness to tackle structural inequalities over the past decade and the stagnant social mobility in this country has been left ruthlessly exposed by the global pandemic. We have got to the stage where the most vulnerable children are unsafely attending school and potentially taking home a virus that could harm their loved ones. With no real alternatives being provided, leaving schools open in their full capacity is unsafe, dangerous and although there is consensus that schools are the safest place for children, are we considering the impacts staff absences, self-isolation and material deprivation on our most disadvantaged learners? We need a plan which goes beyond handing out laptops or marking pupil premium books first. The legacy of this pandemic will be how we supported our most vulnerable. As MPs continue to mention throwing a “protective ring” around the most disadvantaged, how about we throw one around schools and teachers who are a child’s best resource and safe place. If we want to “save” these children, let’s start by protecting them and their families from this potentially fatal virus.

This has been a truly challenging year for us all. Reach out and support those who may be finding it particularly difficult

In Summary

I am always very conscious of my writing as I don’t intend to make it grim reading but there is a fine line between venting and dumping. Teachers have just spent 14 weeks in COVID-inducing conditions, many are self-isolating or in lockdown when they should be around loved ones. As schools are the arena for policy makers to reflect their ideological values, educators should never forget their purpose, their role and responsibility to provide every child with the best education in the safest environment possible. I speak to friends who are purchasing hand sanitiser for their students and even additional PPE for colleagues, it makes you wonder if the chasm between political rhetoric and our daily realities will ever be bridged.

I do want to go back to data and statistics. Between September 1st and December 23rd, the number of COVID deaths has risen by 27,550 (from 41,501 to 69,051). We all know the elephant in the room isn’t “it’s true season” or “there’s more testing.” Schools are driving COVID. We may have had bubbles burst, year groups sent home or perhaps we know of colleagues who have tragically passed away from this virus. What is being done to prevent more deaths? On-site testing isn’t the eureka moment, schools and their leaders need more, much more. It is time to safeguard the public and introduce,

-Blended learning -Face masks -PPE for schools -Year group rotas -Equitable alternatives to exams Cutting off the conditions in which COVID prospers should be our priority. Simply placing a bandage over the wound does not deal with the infection itself, both literally and metaphorically. Ironically, teaching unions actually called for these interventions and I’m still unsure how they pay homage to Karl Marx, do you?

Who do we follow? Who will stand up and lead us through these challenging times? The answer is – YOU. You have been in those classrooms. You have made the ultimate sacrifice this year under unbelievable pressures from MPs and the press. To every teacher out there, it is time to switch off and whatever obstacles come in front of us in January, we will be there and we will honour both our students and those who have suffered losses during this pandemic. We follow the example set by Marcus Rashford. We find our own leaders or we become them. Here’s to the vaccine too. May 2021 bring us all some much needed joy. Ameen.

Finally, to those who are reading this and struggling over this Christmas period, there is support out there.

Samaritans – 116 123

Mind Charity – 03001233393

Young Minds – textline 85258

Education Support – 08000 562 561

The Calm Zone – 0800 585858

Women’s Aid – 0808 2000247

Finally, sending a extra Merry Christmas and Christmas Mubark to all those:

•Who have been through a break up,

•Spending Xmas alone,

•Grieving the loss of a loved one,

•Self-isolating,

•Suffering from anxiety or depression,

•Caring for a loved one

Stay safe. Thank you for reading.

Shuaib Khan

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