THE National Education Union has emailed its members with what it describes as this ‘strong advice’:
‘… you should currently not engage with any planning based on a wider reopening of schools.
‘If your head asks you if you will be available for wider working after 1 June, we urge you to reply that you are waiting further advice from your union.’
Beneath is the slogan: ‘Value education’.
This advice follows publication of the union’s guidance to teachers with regard to the provision of online lessons. These should be kept to ‘a minimum’ and teachers are told that they ‘cannot be expected to carry out routine marking or grading’ of pupils’ work whilst schools are closed. Only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ should teachers live-stream lessons from home or undertake any video calls to pupils.
The hands of head teachers are tied, as one explained to the Sunday Telegraph: ‘Some teachers say that they are not willing to do it and that you can’t make them, because the unions say they don’t have to. There is not a huge amount I can do if I am honest.’
Most independent schools and some maintained schools are not following the union advice. They are, instead, providing pupils with a full and impressive online teaching experience.
Microsoft Teams software has been something of a lifesaver for many schools. Pupils are being treated as though they are still at school. Not only is the regular academic timetable in operation, but children are required to register at the start of the day and for each lesson. Absenteeism is followed up.
During the current emergency, fee-paying parents, whatever the discount, still expect some schooling for their children. Independent schools have risen impressively to the challenge. Survival, after all, may depend for some on how well they measure up to the challenge.
Eton has gone so far as to make some of its digital study courses freely available to state school pupils. At the start of May, Simon Henderson, its headteacher, reported that 1,600 state secondary schools – around a third of the total – had taken up the offer.
It turns out the Labour Party’s ‘Abolish Eton’ contingent has been barking up the wrong tree.
In terms of what is in the best interests of children at the moment, there is a stronger case for the abolition of the National Education Union rather than Eton College. I am not advocating either, of course! For all the faults currently on display, trade unions are a key component of a free society. I was a teacher union member for 35 years and I once sat on the TUC’s local government committee. I was proud to do so.
How ironic, therefore, that the posh elite of Eton College is now doing far more than the National Education Union to support our nation’s children. On the one hand, we have Eton offering free, online top-quality lessons. On the other hand, we have the National Education Union slamming a lid on the provision of online learning – partly on the grounds of ‘elf ’n’ safety’ and partly because 93 per cent of youngsters having access to digital devices is insufficient.
Should the union not be focused on ensuring the Government fulfils its promise to equip the unequipped seven per cent of children, rather than declaring what all cannot have, none shall have?
I wonder, though, if the union has a greater concern. The promotion of free, high-quality online teaching, such as that on offer from Eton and the Perse School, Cambridge, could be highly dangerous for those union members who happen to be less competent teachers.
Dominic Cummings had a eureka moment when he was focused on education as the organ grinder to Michael Gove during his stint as Education Secretary. He concluded: ‘Many teachers are so mediocre that they should be given a script to read to pupils and forced to follow standardised lesson plans.
‘Removing the scope for thousands of classroom teachers to discuss their own ideas or set children tasks they have designed should raise standards substantially.’
The script-reading that Cummings suggests may be unrealistic and would certainly be demeaning for teachers. A comprehensive, coherently-planned and extensive bank of high-quality video lessons for classroom use could, however, be a game-changer for education, especially for the underprivileged.
Given the shortage of well-qualified teachers in subject areas such as maths and the sciences, an extensive bank of filmed lessons by outstanding teachers would rescue many teachers as well as pupils. It would, in addition, help bridge the gap between the best and the worst schools. It could be a magic bullet to raise standards significantly whilst resolving the teacher recruitment crisis.
By endeavouring to block online learning, the National Education Union is revealing an underlying fear that those teachers who are inadequate, but still union members, may not have a future in the profession if too many video lessons by outstanding teachers become available in the classroom.
As a consequence, during this time of coronavirus lockdown, it is the long-term interests of union members that have been put ahead of the best interests of children.