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05 January 2021

The Monday Briefing: The Magical Mystery Tour

The Monday Briefing: The Magical Mystery Tour

Since the first lockdown came along, my mother has been left bereft of her favourite pastime. This generally consists of a lengthy ramble around the clothes shops, stopping off for a latte and a muffin before resuming her search for a new cardigan or pair of trousers. She’d always buy a few items so that she had the ready made excuse of a trip to return something, perhaps too big, or because it no longer suited her, prompting a return visit. This was an ongoing cycle, which I’m absolutely sure, she is mourning the loss of. 

In search of new pursuits, she and my father have been partial to a leisurely drive in the car since lockdown - up the coast perhaps or using the ‘scenic route’ to get to the supermarket. Anything to fill the time, and in order to provoke a little more excitement into their increasingly restricted lives. My mother never passed her driving test, so she is entirely dependent on my father to determine the route and final destination of her travels. This is an enjoyable pursuit for her largely because she trusts my father implicitly: he knows virtually every road in Fife incredibly well having worked as a travelling salesman in agriculture; and he is an excellent driver, never having had an accident.

It occurred to me over the Christmas break that there are both striking similarities and stark differences between my mother’s new hobby and the current government handling of the pandemic - the Covid Magical Mystery Tour, if you will - with Gavin Williamson in the driver’s seat and all of the students, parents and school staff of the UK along for the ride. I’m not at all sure that the people of the country share the trust which exists between my parents.

With the government seemingly taking us in circles, it brought back memories of my time in Milton Keynes, the new town with a quite incredible 130 roundabouts. Driving there was frustrating, but made more so by those too lazy to use their indicators. Somehow, the drivers who didn’t bother signalling their plans, expected other road users to predict where they would go, sometimes with disastrous consequences or forcing others to wait until they went, waiting patiently for them to rudely continue on with their journeys. There is a scene in National Lampoon's European Vacation where Clark Griswald, driving his family on a trip to London, gets stuck on a roundabout for hours. His lame attempts to entertain the children by repeatedly exclaiming ‘Look kids....Big Ben...Houses of Parliament’ and then coming to the desperate realisation that ‘It’s amazing...I can not get left’ and so out of his current predicament, chimes well with the desperate situation the education sector is in - we all know where we want to go, but the driver simply isn’t getting us there.

The lack of direction at the moment is quite infuriating, as yet another u-turn leaves me contemplating yet another few hours of work which I can consign to the category marked as ‘wasted time’. I spent hours preparing a schedule for year 11 and year 13 students to undergo lateral flow testing at the end of this week, as I did preparing to assist staff in self-testing today. These tests, which must have cost unspeakable amounts of money, will now sit in schools and colleges up and down the country gathering dust. It’s the latest in a catalogue of direction shifts from the government. I’m far too dismayed as I write this to list the rest of them.

I’m sure there is a great deal of relief at the fact that a clear decision has finally been made and that we have entered the third lockdown, but again, it’s a last minute judgement which has heaped undue pressure and unnecessary stress on millions of people. What has been laid bare for me here is the lack of foresight, and it leaves more questions than answers. 

I am left contemplating the summer exams and the uncertainty that students and parents are now going through, why remote learning - which has now become the main vehicle of teaching and learning again - has been neglected in terms of investment this whole academic year, and how faith in education as a system can be restored. It is clear that, alongside protecting the NHS, keeping schools open was a government priority. 

Why then, does it not treat the education sector with due care and consideration?

Former First Minister of Scotland Lord McConnell said today that it is vital that schools and colleges are treated as ‘vital infrastructure’ and that every effort should be made to value the positive effects of education for children by keeping them open. Alongside this, of course, it enables parents to focus on work rather than home schooling. He called closures a disaster, and I can only agree with him.

How, then, can they be kept open? 

He voiced the need for school staff to be prioritised for vaccination in order to speed up reopening, and to ensure that schools have been made safe for all. Apparently there are no plans to introduce this at present. 

I can only hope another u-turn on this is forthcoming from the government, and fast.

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