“Fifty-three. Four squillion. Rotate the boards. That’s Numberwang!” In one of Mitchell and Webb’s comedy sketches there is a quiz show, Numberwang, in which two contestants yell out random numbers until one, somehow, wins. The joke is in the chaotic nonsense of the rules.
That is how life has felt for teachers and parents in England these past few months, only without the laughs. Thanks to the government’s apparently random edicts and U-turns, we have been playing Schoolswang. No one wins.
School leaders have faced endlessly changing rules: get the children back. No, don’t get the children back! Plan for everyone to see a teacher at least once. But don’t plan for children to turn up on rotas. Never do rotas. But if you do use rotas – given the scientists have said it’s the safest options and one in five primary schools is using them – absolutely nothing will happen to you.
Feed the poor children! But don’t feed them at Easter. OK, feed them at Easter. But not at half-term. OK, at half-term. But definitely do not feed them in the summer holidays. Not that you will be having summer holidays. Or will you? That’s Schoolswang!
Nearly three months after the education secretary announced schools would close, all he has done is over-promise laptops, most of which still haven’t appeared, for vulnerable children, and randomly select some year groups to go back to class. Over the next two months, six and 11-year-olds will have 22 hours’ face-to-face schooling a week, while seven and 10-year-olds will get nothing until September. Schoolswang again.
In the past month more than £35bn has been approved for small businesses in state-backed loans, yet we couldn’t give headteachers a voucher to buy laptops. The government built a website able to process payments for more than 6 million furloughed employees, yet the school food site was so flakey that heads were asked to use it only between 11pm and 5am.
And while negotiations are taking places over “air bridges” so Brits can get to the beach, barely a breath has been spent discussing the young people whose GCSE and A-levels exams have been cancelled and who were promised a proper appeals system that now lies in tatters.
It seems the government cares more for businesses than children. Now senior Conservatives such as Robert Halfon, a former education minister and leader of the education select committee, are calling for “Nightingale”-type schools, hacked together from empty church halls, stuffed with volunteer teachers, and open for those children who have fallen behind.
Has anyone worked out if the children would go? In a quarter of primary schools in the poorest areas, attendance was running at less than 20% after reopening. And who will organise all this? School leaders are so overworked that expecting them to arrange an entire summer of collaborative activities while planning for a socially distanced school return is neither fair nor realistic.
Meanwhile in Wales, schools policy seems far less random. Schools, after being given a month’s notice, will reopen for all pupils at the end of June. Each can operate as it wishes as long as only a third of pupils are in school at any time. Primary children will be allowed to mix freely in bubbles of eight; secondary pupils will need to be distanced. The aim is to give every child a bit of time in school for social and mental health purposes. The focus is on getting ready to learn again and preparing for next year. In Scotland and Ireland, schools will reopen in August.
England chose not to do many sensible things. The Scientific Advisory Group (Sage) said rotas would be the safest and best option for schools. The government ignored it. The Labour party asked for a national taskforce to reopen schools as quickly as possible. Ignored again. Parents have been crying out for minimum guidelines as to what they can expect schools to provide. Do they have the right to a weekly phone call, for their child’s work to be marked, to online lessons? Silence.
I always try to understand the government’s point of view over schools policy. But, finally, I’m at my wits’ end. It could have been so different, yet the whole thing is a mess. We are now playing Lifewang with children’s education. Can we rotate the politicians?