If hairdressers ran our schools every child would be going back in September

Your children will be going back to school in September. Maybe. Possibly on a part-time basis

It’s time parents heard a bit more about what that appropriate education will look like in September. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

It’s time parents heard a bit more about what that appropriate education will look like in September. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

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There’s just one question for parents arising out of the latest round of back-to-school pontificating from the Department of Education and Skills, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and the teachers’ unions. When we are schooling or running an impromptu summer camp while trying to hold down your other job. You know, the one you are actually qualified for and get paid to do.

Your children will be going back to school in September. Maybe. Possibly on a part-time basis. It will be an optimum reopening, says the Minister. Or a phased one, say the unions. Unless the interim advice changes. Just how optimum, interim, part-time or phased will be determined by education stakeholders over the coming weeks, according to our new Minister for Education Norma Foley.

Meanwhile, the unions have been busily warning that a full return to school is unlikely, and some form of – trigger warning – “blended learning” will have to be part of it. Blended learning is barely workable for secondary school students and, as teachers must know, a whimsical fantasy for primary school ones.

It’s time parents heard a bit more about what that appropriate education will look like in September

But let’s indulge the fantasy for a moment. Let’s imagine that blended learning, which 83 per cent of primary parents oppose for good reason, becomes a permanent, meaningful alternative to in-class tuition. So far, at primary level, what blended learning has meant is weekly homework being emailed out by the school, to be completed and sent back at the end of the week. In some schools, children have daily homework tasks, which are returned corrected the next day. Some teachers go further, and upload video and voice messages for children. Certain mostly fee-paying establishments, whose existence is feverishly whispered about in parent WhatsApp groups, are rumoured to offer Zoom learning all day, every day.

But in most cases, the actual work of teaching during the hours between 9.04am, when the children have finished opening the Padlet or reading the email, and 2.30pm, is left to parents. If the unions or the department want to keep blended learning as part of the curriculum, we’re going to need a better plan than that.

It’s not clear whether the Minister was including parents when she referred to stakeholders. But she should have been. Section 15 of the 1998 Education Act says schools have to be managed “for the benefit of the students and their parents” and every child is entitled to an appropriate education.

Nearly four months after schools closed, it’s time parents heard a bit more about what that appropriate education will look like in September. Will there be a camera in the classroom, so that teachers can teach the students at home and in class simultaneously for the full school day? Will the department stump up for a laptop, tablet, and wifi access for every child in the country? What will be done to motivate reluctant remote learners? Or those with learning difficulties? Or those who don’t have the physical space or parental help to focus on their education? Will there be financial compensation for parents – especially those who reduce their hours at work to teach their children at home? I say “parents”, but it will mostly be mothers.

The alternative, of course, is to reopen schools to all students, every day.

Healthcare workers didn’t threaten to strike when they had to go to work in a place where social distancing isn’t possible

Public health guidance on social distancing is the main reason unions say this can’t be done. They’ve accused the government of behaving as if teachers have “magical immunity”. The TUI has threatened strike action if its members are expected to go back to work in a manner that puts them at risk. Certainly, the advice published by the HPSC last week shows how tricky social distancing in schools could be if the one-metre rule is maintained.

But crucially, the HPSC also says that social distancing “must be applied in a practical way, recognising that the learning environment cannot be dominated by a potentially counterproductive focus on this issue”. It talks about “maintaining as much distance as is reasonably practicable”. What it is actually asking for is for teachers to do what they’ve been trained to do, and apply common sense. They should discourage children from getting too close, and ensure everyone washes their hands often. There’s no reason everyone over 11 shouldn’t wear a mask, other than those with a good health reason to avoid them. Teachers should be given PPE, and those who are medically vulnerable should be allowed to stay home and teach remotely.

In reality, there are lots of sectors getting on perfectly well by applying common sense to social distancing, and none of them have magical immunity either. Healthcare workers didn’t threaten to strike when they had to go to work in a place where social distancing isn’t possible – they put on their PPE and went straight into the frontline. Hairdressers strapped on their visors and masks and got enthusiastically back to work this week. Home care workers, GPs, public transport drivers, retail workers have been working throughout.

Other than the vocal ones on Twitter, who shout down any discussion on reopening with roars of “teacher-bashing” – or, the troll’s favourite, “why did you bother having kids?” – most teachers are champing at the bit to get back to the classroom before the education gap becomes an unbridgeable chasm. They know children’s education cannot wait until it is 100 per cent safe. There’s no such thing. Yes, there was an outbreak in Israel after schools reopened. But schools are open in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Norway, and there have been no spikes there.

Some pubs have already reopened, despite being a petri dish for coronavirus transmission. And yet we still haven’t got anything like a sensible plan for schools reopening, where the risk is measurably much lower. Just some interim advice about a probable, optimum, possible partial reopening. Maybe.

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