Matthew Evans’ excellent blog, When is a school not a school? examines the critical question of what a school is, both physically and in philosophical and conceptual essence – both in Covid and otherwise. I have read and re-read this post, and it has triggered me to address a nagging doubt I have had around the phrase schools never closed. If you haven’t seen this in circulation, then you’d find it within a nanosecond on EduTwitter. It was an important message for the teaching community at the end of the first lockdown – when we were being slammed by the usual crowd, in the usual press, at the usual time, it brought comfort. When these people should have been focused on the critical underfunding at the hands of our woefully neglectful government, they turned on teachers instead. Through the phrase schools never closed, we could remind ourselves that we hadn’t stopped doing the things that matter – the education and the nurture and the services to those who need us most.
The phrase is not quite right, though.
In many professions and trades, there is an inevitable disconnect between the intentions of the service provider and the experience of the service user. This is not always bad; many of us have been thrilled with services provided by our doctors, mechanics, local shops, and schools, while they humbly bat away praise and thanks. I have also been frustrated to the point of rage by others – most recently a delivery company who thought that an acceptable ‘safe place’ was inside the wheelie-bin*.
Often, this disconnect is one of communication: something is written badly, or read incorrectly, or information is omitted or ambiguous. Schools are no exception. Every decision – every action – needs to come with the question of how are we going to communicate this? This goes for decisions which only affect staff; decisions which will impact on the student community, and of course decisions which parents need to know about. One misstep here and trust starts to erode.
Even when we design personalised systems, they are often not experienced as such. In the words of Anais Nin, ‘we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are.’ Our pursuit for truth is hindered by the irritating fact that we are humans, with tangled messes of emotions, senses and experiences. The social and political world around us is largely constructed by our perceptions. In a world where schools understood that we continued to provide educational services for our communities, but where many parents were forced into financial hardship because educational provision wasn’t available to them, then it is a complicated and over-simplified message to simply say that schools never closed. For parents walking past closed buildings, or for parents juggling full-time work without furlough or grants, this phrase makes no sense. I am uncomfortable with it.
I think the rhetoric that schools never closed was misplaced and has served to further alienate teachers from the baying mobs who are determined to undermine and criticise schools at any opportunity. The line that we needed to take was that school staff have not stopped working.We didn’t stop. Our working hours increased and half-terms merged into term-time as we continued to provide pastoral services for our communities without pause. Education continued. Free School Meal entitlement and provision continued – even with the criminal negligence of the privately owned, outsourced companies who sought to profit from hungry children – even then, we continued to feed our families. There is no question that we continued to do what we could in the face of a global crisis.
Additionally, some schools really did close.
My daughter’s school closed. I don’t mean that she didn’t qualify for a keyworker place. I mean, it closed. They wrote to us to say that they would distribute exercise books by the end of the week. They turned out the lights and put a chain across the gate. Keyworker provision was at another school in the MAT, a mile down the road. Another Bristol MAT made a similar decision, with several primaries all relocated to their largest site. It is a sensible move, in many ways. It meant they could pool staff, centralise resources and effectively reduce the spread of the virus by enabling fewer interactions across sites. There is no criticism from me here. It is, though, difficult to marry this with the line that schools never closed. This line didn’t make sense to parents who couldn’t see the work going on behind the scenes. It was impossible to imagine, and caused resentment and frustration in some communities. Those without the luxury of a guaranteed income felt this most keenly.
As a profession, we are constantly having to defend ourselves, especially from certain sectors of the press. Our friends in the right-wing of the Fourth Estate are partial to teacher-bashing as a blood-sport. We find ourselves insisting on things that should come with professional trust. We work beyond 3pm every day! We work in the holidays! We’re not lazy! We’re living in reality! We’re not indoctrinating your children with extreme ideologies! For this audience, and even for the gentler communities not in education, we needed to think carefully about the phrasing of schools never closed. It has triggered some to identify a wider space between schools and their stakeholders. If there ever is a next time, we can pause for thought about what we mean by ‘school’, and what it means for a school to be ‘open’ and how our language is received by those who have truly struggled as a result of the closures.
*Yes, this really happened. No, I didn’t lose my parcel and no, I didn’t complain about the driver. I was able to laugh about it within the hour.
Linked image – Padlock Gate Closed – Free photo on Pixabay licensed under the Creative Commons Licence.