Nadhim Zahawi loses the plot.

The Open Letter to Schools by Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi for the start of term is based on a presumption that the Omicron variant will cause mass infections and, rather than seek to avoid this, the government wants schools to adapt to it.

This is the logical consequence of putting business first; which requires a defeatist approach to suppressing the virus. If the imperative is not to suppress the virus but simply to have the maximum number of students in school so that their parents can go to work and relieve some of the pressure on businesses, health and educational considerations take a back seat.

Zahawi concedes that the situation is going to be bad. Lots of students and members of staff will contract the virus. “Public sector leaders have been asked to prepare for a worst-case scenario of up to a quarter of staff off work as the virus continues to sweep across the country” TES. This is the “take it on the chin” approach with avengeance. Provision of online or blended learning during the coming half term is not a measure to be taken to avoid mass infection, but a fall back position required by the failure to do so.

His last minute suggestions to deal with large scale staff absence have a whiff of barely thought out panic about them, combined with some attempts not to let a good crisis go to waste.

  • appeals to “former teachers” to return to the classroom; to be organised school by school. There is nothing proposed from the DFE to encourage this, or facilitate it, giving a strong sense of “over to you” about it. If this is to be taken seriously, some thought needs to go into who “former teachers” are – and why they are “former”. Most of them will be found among the third of teachers who quit within five years of qualification; so, addressing the issues which lead to this exodus will be needed if they are to be encouraged back in any numbers. Most of this group will be younger people who will have moved on to other jobs. Relatively few of them will be willing to quit a new career without some sign that the conditions that lead them to leave in the first place are being addressed. A comment often heard from recently departed or retired colleagues is along the lines of, “I don’t know how you can put up with it. Its only after you leave that you realise how much stress you’ve been under”. A serious discussion with the teaching unions about how the unbearable pressures on teachers – at the best of times – could be relieved would be an essential precondition for this to have even a marginal effect. There are also quite a lot of retired teachers. However, most of them are in relatively vulnerable age groups. Probably not wise to put a lot of exhausted rising seventies in Covid crisis classrooms; particularly given some of the other suggestions that Zahawi has sucked out of his thumb; which will determine what those classrooms are like.
  • Flexible delivery of onsite learning – with the priority being to keep the kids on site – covers a multitude of sins. “Flexible delivery involves utilising all your available teaching and non-teaching workforce to maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible while you flexibly deliver provision either on-site or remotely to some pupils.” Nadhim Zahawi cited in the TES (my emphasis). Using “teaching and non teaching staff” means covering lessons by non teachers. While Higher Level TAs now often cover lessons in some schools in certain conditions, this seems to be a much broader proposal; that anyone who can be propped up in front of a class is fair game to keep the appearance of on site education going. The educational fabric looks set to be stretched very thin.
  • The other suggestion is “merging classes”. This is beyond parody. Instead of having 30 students in a room, you put 60 of them in there. With a Covid variant that is as infectious as measles. Quite brilliant!
  • Exams and OFSTED inspections are expected to go ahead as normal. OFSTED inspections for Secondary schools will be held back for the first week in January, but only to facilitate on site pupil Covid testing. Other than that, OFSTED Inspectors who “who are also school, college and early years leaders” will not be expected to take part in inspections – making the inspectors that do even less in touch with practice and experience on the ground. Schools affected by significant absence can “ask for” Inspections to be “deferred”.
  • Students and staff are “encouraged” to self test twice a week and the DFE “recommend” that face masks should be worn in Secondary classrooms as well as communal areas while students over the age of 12 are “eligible” for vaccination. None of this is a requirement. This lackadaisical libertarianism is described as a “proportionate and targeted” approach. Largely thanks to anti-vaxx influence in the Conservative Party, there is no current proposal to vaccinate 5-12 year olds, even though evidence from South Africa shows that Omicron has a greater impact on younger children that previous developments and vaccinations of this age group are now taking place in the USA and the EU. largely due to anti-vaxx influence in the Conservative Party.
  • 7,000 ventilation units are to be deployed, with no timescale set out. With 24,400 schools in England, that’s one between every three and a half schools. Presumably they are expected to share.

This half term looks set to be as big a mess as any in this pandemic, especially in schools. Zarhawi’s letter describes what “living with the virus” is going to look like. Not just this half term, but forever.

Instead of a determined policy to suppress the virus, with the sort of whole society mobilisation that eliminated domestic infections in China in two months in 2020, we have half hearted safety gestures (described as “proportionate” when “inadequate” would be more accurate) – apologetically introduced and slated to be removed as soon as possible as an affront to personal liberties – used as a cover for a level of social mixing likely to send infections soaring, with massive numbers of staff off sick – and doubled up classes covered by anyone on the payroll who can be got to cover them; giving the infection rate an added top spin.

The Education Unions will in the first instance need some quickly published agreed guidelines to stop this becoming abusive, but we also need to campaign explicitly for an active Covid suppression policy, aiming to eliminate domestic infections as the only way forward that will actually be a way out.

Update 4/1/22:

Joint union safety guidelines have now been published by NEU NASUWT UNISON UNITE and GMB and can be read here.

The NEU press release on the government statement can be read here.