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Passion and anger have greeted the Westminster government’s proposals for a phased return of school pupils. The largest teaching union, the National Education Union (NEU), says that 92% of its members feel unsafe at what it condemns as a “reckless” plan that is “too fast, too confusing and too risky”. It is advising members not to co-operate.
The NEU’s general secretary, Mary Bousted, says that the debate must be dictated by research evidence showing that the most effective way of suppressing the coronavirus is to keep most children away from school. What then of the advice of the chief medical officer and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) that underpins the government’s plans?
Amid uncertainty around the degree of risk and public disagreement among scientists over the impact and necessity of the lockdown, what are teachers to do: focus on the worst-case scenario or rely on “good solid British common sense”, as exhorted by Boris Johnson?
Some argue that the debate should be framed instead by the public-service ethic of teaching: school staff have a duty to do everything possible to get schools up and running again. But what is the relationship between safety and moral purpose?
Teachers have been applauded for serving their community through this adversity. Thousands of parents have already signed petitions expressing strong opposition to schools reopening. Is this truly reflective of public attitudes, or could the speed with which the unions dismissed the government’s plans ultimately count against the profession? An army of volunteers was galvanised to assist with healthcare. Could similar be recruited for education or are teaching unions leading the way in putting their members’ interest first in the wider cause of protecting the health of teachers and pupils alike?
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director, Academy of Ideas and author of I Still Find That Offensive! (Biteback Publishing)
science teacher and union representative in north London. Conor will be speaking in a personal capacity.