Teaching unions are right to set tests for the government to meet to protect their members, children, and families, says Laura Smith
Before I was a member of parliament and entered mainstream politics, I was an infant primary school teacher. I spent much of my job wiping noses, bandaging scraped knees, brushing hair, and holding little clammy hands. It is physically impossible to do that job from a distance. When those children in my class were dropped off at the school gates and entered my classroom, they were my responsibility, and for the hours that I had them I would treat them with the love and consideration I did my own children.
I have always passionately believed that being a primary teacher is as much about building confidence and security as it is about writing and numbers, especially in those early years. A child who is happy and supported will find learning more accessible and, to do that, they must trust you to care for them. Therefore, seeing the right-wing newspapers attacking teachers and asking them to be ‘allowed’ to step up and be a hero made my stomach turn. You do not enter teaching to make a fortune. You also do not enter it to be a hero. You enter it because you are passionate that education is the key to a more enriched and satisfying life. You want to be part of that journey, igniting that flame and passion in another. No one enters teaching to mark test papers or fill in progress reports. Sadly, the last ten years have sucked much of the joys and freedom of education away, leaving teachers already feeling undervalued, under-supported, and under pressure. To attack the teachers through smearing their trade unions and demanding that they put their health on the line to teach when the government has not even mastered the basics of tackling the pandemic is truly diabolical.
We have also seen the government suddenly discover its conscience for our vulnerable and disadvantaged children after 10 years of neglect. Now I absolutely agree, we must do more to make sure these children are adequately supported, and councils, social workers, police, and all other agencies have been working on doing just this. In fact, schools never closed to these children and teachers never stopped working for them, even remaining open during school holidays. For the very politicians who have voted for cuts to our welfare system, cuts to our education system and local authorities, closed youth clubs, decimated our mental health system, starved FE funding and trebled tuition fees to suddenly be concerned for our kids well being is to take us for fools.
We know that the real reason is to get the machine working again and to get workers back to it. Remember that lockdown, school closures, and furlough only happened because of the trade unions, activists and the general public campaigning against the ‘herd’ immunity Boris Johnson championed and seems to still be pursuing. Tory MPs want you back to work and to do that your kids need to be in school. The motivation is money, nothing more and nothing less.
As a parent, I will continue to follow the major teaching unions advice who have sensibly asked for 5 demands to be met, and when they are satisfied that children and staff are supported I will consider the two most precious people to me returning to their school and preschool. The NEU rightly wants to see clear scientific evidence to support opening schools and the British Medical Association stands with them. Our government unsurprisingly seems to want to skip the necessary safety stages preferring to try and guilt trip and manipulate public sector workers. Their disjointed and contradictory advice makes it quite clear that they haven’t got a clue what they are doing, and the comparisons that they make to schools in Sweden and Denmark are nonsensical. Compare instead to Italy, where we have more similarities and their children will not return any earlier than September. We have the highest death rate in Europe and our new cases per day are still dangerously high.
I am very conscious of the fact that I come at this from a certain amount of privilege. We have a roof over our heads, my children have full bellies and we have a back garden. It isn’t ideal, but I can work from home, although I am pretty desperate for recruitment restrictions to be lifted so that I can hopefully get more secure work. I have navigated the Universal Credit system and have postponed bills that I could. We can just about muddle through for now. However, there will be many counting down the days until they can return to work so that they can once again afford the basics. They will feel like they have no choice but to send their children back to school.
Rather than people feeling trapped with no way out but to end lockdown, we must unite to oppose a public sector pay freeze and fight for the welfare increases many desperately need. We must stand in solidarity with key workers, risking their lives, for often less than the living wage. We have to recognise that the long-term repercussions of COVID 19 will no doubt affect a generation, and for many life will become harder. Our duty first and foremost is to defend lives in the face of a callous and incompetent government, against the virus and the economic whirlwind heading our way.
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Laura Smith is a Councillor for Cheshire East and is the former Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich