Putting pubs before pupils: proper policy-making or political posturing?

Bernard's feeling strongly about government's late and ineffectual intervention in the exam results fiasco: it's using mock exams to make a mockery.

A couple of weeks ago Bernard Trafford announced that he’d hung up his quill pen and finished writing weekly on matters educational.  But sometimes, he now realises, you’ve just got to keep speaking out, rather like the amazing Marcus Rashford mentioned below. So here he is, on Voice of the North.

OK, so I fancied a catchily alliterative headline. But so incompetent appear government’s efforts to restart both education and the economy, and so empty is its rhetoric, that it’s hard to regard its utterances and contradictory guidance as more than flannel. And putting pubs before pupils smacks to me of prioritising political posturing over proper policy-making.

Go down the pub by all means: but what about schools?

I’ll happily to go down the pub if they actually re-open in July. It’ll take a few pints to assuage my guilt, knowing that, while I’m swilling the amber nectar, countless children are being denied a genuine education.

Most schools, “closed” since March, have remained open for the vulnerable and for children of key workers.  They’ve also had to bust a gut to get free school meals to children who need them, government having outsourced the voucher system to a frankly useless private firm.  Next, government became Scrooge-like about the summer break, until that splendid young man Marcus Rashford used his footballer-celebrity status to talk truth to power (the truth of his own life, moreover) and maybe force a rethink.

Meanwhile, schools have been battling to provide education remotely (at home) to the overwhelming majority of children. The level of effectiveness ranges from amazing to negligible.

Are you receiving me?

The best-resourced are using technology to teach a full programme of live (in effect, digitally face-to-face) lessons. Some – not exclusively private schools – are reaching 100% of students, with swift follow-up to parents if reluctant teenagers don’t get out of bed in time.

At the other end of the spectrum, some children have received no more than a pile of photocopied work to be completed by July. But it’s more complicated than that.

Teachers can be teaching their socks off in a classroom, “delivering” (odious word) the necessary material, but the pupils take nothing in: it’s the big challenge and tragedy of the job. How much harder when the kids aren’t even in the room? They’re not all angels, who want to be there.

“Millions” of pupils getting nowt? I fear it’s true

Apparently not

A University College London (UCL) study, reported in today’s Times, has found that one-fifth of schoolchildren are doing less than an hour or no work in a day. The Times reckons four million children aren’t actually being educated at present.

Small wonder that the clamour grows to “get our kids back into school”. The PM set optimistic dates for certain year-groups to return, while the Education Department issued reams of advice, much of it contradictory or of little value. Though some children are now back in school, the grand plan was abandoned. No one was surprised.

That’s the way to do it! Reopen schools following The Times’ comic-strip guide: simples!

Why it can’t be done

Formal schooling works by “piling ‘em high” (I won’t add anything about selling ‘em cheap): sticking groups of up to 30 children into classrooms. Obliged to keep them two metres apart, schools can squeeze only a painfully tiny fraction into their buildings, even when bringing sports halls, outdoor spaces, additional tents, marquees and village halls into play.  And distancing still prohibits many normal learning activities. Saturday’s hilariously well-meant Times comic-strip serves to demonstrate the absurdity of trying.

Boris knows this, as does everyone trying to develop policy. Similarly, the hospitality industry isn’t viable when customer numbers are slashed by distancing rules, while additional staff are required to manage queues and (above all) keep everything clean. The figures don’t add up.

To kick-start hospitality properly, government will have to introduce a one-metre rule. On those terms, pubs and restaurants could reopen almost as normal: so could schools, freeing up more parents to get back to normal working, and thus further opening up the economy.

Current scientific advice prohibits this: but, then, government frequently ignores or reinterprets experts (think Barnard Castle). As medical experts disappear from daily briefings (possibly because they won’t peddle the government line on the Cummings scandal), it will probably do so again:  the political/economic agenda will drive a rule-change.

Pubs will come before pupils

I predict that government will become increasingly dictatorial in these areas: annoyingly, it may even be right to do so.

Nonetheless, if pubs do reopen before pupils get back properly to school, and the move is trumpeted as some kind of policy success, I for one will be deeply uncomfortable witnessing the triumph of political posturing over proper priorities.


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