Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced delays in the reopening of schools and colleges a few days ago, against a backdrop of the UK COVID-19 death toll reaching over 70,000.
These delays, currently, are to last a fortnight for secondary school pupils, a week for students in exam years and do not extend to primary school pupils.
However, trade unions warned that this is insufficient to protect Britain’s teachers, parents and children, highlighted by the fact that between September and November, there has been a fifty-fold increase in COVID-19 infections. Furthermore, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said in November that children “tend to have a wide transmission circle which can endanger parents and grandparents.”
This led to four hundred thousand people tuning into the National Education Union (NEU’s) online members’ briefing yesterday, making it the largest meeting in trade union history, and highlighting the urgency and worry of teachers and parents across the country.
The Government claims that it is attempting to balance safeguarding children’s education and their health. But this does not hold up against a backdrop of a deadly pandemic, which has claimed the lives of over 70,000 citizens. It is simply indefensible to risk increasing infections in order to ensure pupils can sit GCSE and A-level exams, especially when teacher assessment is a viable alternative option.
If the Government cared as much as it claims it does about the education of children, it likely would have listened to the education unions when they called for smaller class sizes, socially distanced learning and the recruitment of additional teachers. It did, of course, not do this.
The reason? The Government does not want parents unavailable for work—hence the exceptions made for older pupils, who don’t need parental supervision. The Government will keep schools open as long as it practically and politically can do this, at the cost of human life, because for them the alternative means economic disruption. That they do greater damage to the economy in the long-term by making lockdowns inevitable is irrelevant —market forces exist in the here and now, long-term thinking is impossible. The capitalist response to the crisis, therefore, is inevitably self-destructive. It reproduces the conditions which prolong its suffering.
The mass campaign to force the government to change track on this is beginning to work, with some form of a lockdown expected to be announced shortly. For the sake of the country and for the potential lives lost, let us hope this is true. It is shameful that the government had to be forced to take this position, and that we are in this situation in the first place – we must ensure the public never forget!
Tom Partis & Seán Manuel