Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

The Playing Fields of Eton (and its lesser brethren)

 As the NEU draws up the battle lines with its 25-page checklist, I thought I'd share with you what is happening in the private sector - or at least in one unremarkable and fairly typical corner of it - where the continued existence of a school depends entirely on parents being willing to keep paying the fees.

Since the beginning of lockdown, the school in question has continued to provide a full academic timetable and a range of extra-curricular activities and virtual social events. While a few part-time teaching staff were furloughed when the pupils were sent home, everyone else transferred their lessons online and carried on seamlessly (at the same time as learning how to use the new software, adapting schemes of work and providing the required predictive data for public exam candidates).

Of course, I appreciate that this was only possible because all pupils have access to computers and a school intranet system - although some creative thinking was needed in the case of technical difficulties, where work had to be posted, dictated over the phone or delivered in person - and because the background support of fee-paying parents can generally be taken for granted. Even so, it is notable that, despite many teachers belonging to the NEU*, which was advocating reduced teaching time and responsibilities, there were no objections to carrying on as normally as possible under the circumstances.

The virtual school day ran from morning assembly at 8.30 until 5 or 6pm, including allocated times for private study, cultural activities, practical projects and outdoor exercise. A boarding house and set of classrooms were kept open throughout for key workers' children and there was a socially-distanced day in school for each year group in July, under the watchful eyes of teaching staff, providing a trial run of practical arrangements for dropping off, temperature checks and social distancing measures on campus.

The school has already announced plans to open as usual for day pupils and boarders in the first week of September with appropriate precautions in place (overseas students will arrive in the UK next week to begin a compulsory 2-week quarantine), returning to the normal 6-day week - lessons were condensed into 5 longer days during the summer term - and resuming a full programme of activities and sports, although fixtures are on hold until further notice.

Although few state schools can match the facilities generally available in the private sector or the extra-curricular provision of a boarding school, many have adapted in similar ways and there are numerous accounts of teachers going above and beyond the call of duty to deliver as much of the curriculum as they can and ensure their pupils keep learning - that is, after all, the main reason why anyone should enter the profession. 

However, if last term has led to a gap between pupils' attainment in the private sector and some parts of the state system, next term looks like turning it into a gaping chasm, at least in areas where the unions hold sway.

I wonder what the NEU will say about that. 

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*The NEU was formed in 2017 when the NUT merged with the 120,000-strong ATL (formerly the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association), once the union of choice for most staff in independent schools; the link explains why many teachers who have no interest in strikes or  political activity now find themselves trapped in a militant organisation.

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