Boris’s billions for building may boost schools but baffle parents

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Buckets under leaky school roofs should have been consigned to history ages ago: but is £1 billion anywhere near enough?

Following the Prime Minister’s statement on Tuesday outlining his vision for an expansionist, prosperous future, Thursday is scheduled to bring an announcement from the Education Secretary about how schools will fully reopen in September and operate during the coming academic year. But is this plan all it’s cracked up to be? And can it actually be done? Boris’s billions for building may boost school but baffle parents: retired headteacher Bernard Trafford tries to explain the ins and outs for those left, well, bewildered.

Expect Gavin Williamson, our painfully lacklustre Secretary of State for Education, to stand up on Thursday and tell us how schools will get back to normal working. We know most of what he’s going to say, because it’s already been leaked: but, then, government itself will trail the gist of it to morning news bulletins hours before Gavin actually makes his speech. That’s how it works nowadays.

Back to school – or else

So everyone will be back in, come September, all pupils in all year groups. And, if they aren’t, parents will be fined.

Like it or not, parents, you’ve got to get your kids into school. You might be uncertain as to how safe they’ll be, given that the Covid virus is reduced but not yet beaten. Too bad: that draconian measure to improve school attendance brought in by Michael Gove during his toxic period as Education Secretary will be back in force (toxic isn’t my choice of word: his boss David Cameron used it).

But how?

Quite how schools will operate when full in September remains unclear: I wouldn’t bet on Thursday’s announcement shedding much light, either. Social distancing of even 1m between pupils won’t allow the standard 30 back into classrooms: yet that’s the figure being hinted at. Perhaps medical – or, more precisely, government – advice will conveniently change, and pronounce kids safe, with no need to distance (even if their teachers do)? Tell that to the inhabitants, and school pupils, of Leicester, where it’s being suggested that the virus has spread particularly swiftly in schools.

Other ideas floating about suggest that for the first term or two of next academic year will see many secondary pupils only being taught the core subjects (one guesses English, maths, science). What will teachers of art, French, geography, music and the rest teach in the meantime?

I can only guess that, with pupils still spaced out (and therefore nothing like 30 in a classroom) they’ll helpfully teach those core subjects to over-spill classes in the additional spaces created to expand schools: village halls, churches, sports halls, libraries and – who knows? – maybe the educational equivalent of Nightingale hospitals.

I confess that, when a serving head, I occasionally helped out with the teaching of religion, Latin and even modern languages. But they never let me near the core, and nor should they have done. I can’t see parents being too happy about non-specialists being drafted into their kids’ exam prep.

What about exams?

As parents will know, GCSE and A level candidates will be awarded their grades this August, their results being based on teacher assessment and rankings sent into, and then processed by, the regulatory body Ofqual.

Candidates can be pretty certain that teachers will have made a fair and positive assessment of their likely grade. But they cannot rely on Ofqual being so generous. Indeed, a significant downgrading seems likely, for which teachers will be unfairly blamed. I’m no expert: but scientist and statistical modeller Dennis Sherwood is, and he explains the problem here.

Blair/Brown’s Building Schools for the Future programme was fraught with problems: but at least it brought some new school buildings.

Beautiful buildings

Whatever positive news Gavin Williamson might have to share, his thunder’s been stolen by his boss. Boris is promising £1bn to repair and replace tired school buildings. That’s surely better than a slap in the face with a wet mackerel?

Yes: but not by much. The National Audit Office estimated some years ago that the bill for necessary repairs to schools would total £6.7bn.

Children should be taught in smart, clean, excellent buildings, not beside rotten windows or under leaky roofs. A decade of austerity has seen the gains made under the Blair/Brown building programme (which wasn’t without its problems) all but lost. It’s unforgiveable, not least because buildings are cheap compared to staff salaries, and £1bn represents but a tiny fraction of the overall education budget.

Gesture politics instead of solutions

I know government is facing intractable, “unprecedented” challenges: but I fear it’s addressing education’s problems with mere gesture politics. Boris’s billions for building may boost schools but baffle parents – who, like their children, are likely in the end to be left disappointed.

If that all seems a bit bleak, and it is, what can worried parents do if they’re worried that their child is missing out and/or falling behind?. Bernard will tackle that question in his next education piece – only on Voice of the North.

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