Once upon a time there was a view that it took a village to educate a child. A recognition that, as well as going to school, children absorbed facts, learned manners, and acquired experience not only from their parents but from living in, and being supported by, a community of all ages, occupations and skills.
As teachers gear up for a new school year — still fearful of Covid, not confident about next year’s exams — they can be forgiven if they are feeling the pressures heaped upon them. Teaching is still a noble calling. There is no greater privilege than contributing to the education of a child.
Teaching throughout the pandemic was tough. Schools may have been in lockdown — twice — but they did not close. They had to respond quickly to adapt national guidance for their local circumstances, to incorporate last-minute changes and developments.
From kitchen tables up and down the land, teachers taught online while supporting their own families. They coped with the demands of teacher-awarded exam grades, often while continuing with blended learning to support pupils who were self-isolating.
“Teachers were not fast-tracked for vaccinations, instead their workplaces became track and trace and testing hubs.”
Teachers were on the frontline throughout the pandemic. They were not fast-tracked for vaccinations in the way that some other critical workers were. Instead, their places of work became community hubs supporting “track and trace”, setting up lateral flow testing procedures, acting as a weathervane for progress in the fight against Covid. They coped, with good grace and commitment. Of course they did.
Covid caused a significant rise in mental health problems, particularly in anxiety-related disorders. All the schools I know, including my own, saw an increase in pupils with depression and associated disorders. Local education authorities were overstretched even before Covid. But a child now needs to be at immediate risk of harm to receive help from local mental health and social support services. Schools are not equipped to manage a problem of this scale. Teachers are not trained counsellors. The level of demand and the serious nature of the problems that schools are being asked to deal with is simply not sustainable.
Add this problem to the ever-growing list of issues in which schools have been required to take responsibility in recent years and you may wonder how teaching is fitted in to the school day. Bullying. Cyber-bullying. Drugs, alcohol and substance abuse. Online safety. Stranger danger. Domestic abuse. Relationships and sex education. Sexual exploitation and harassment. Diversity and inclusivity. These are all now directly addressed in the curriculum, and schools’ procedures are inspected.
“Responsibility for serious societal problems needs to be shared with tech companies, the police, social services, mental health experts, the media and family.”
Of course, teachers will always take seriously their responsibility for protecting children. And schools accept that they have a part to play in providing secure environments, in informing students about managing their own safety and adopting healthy lifestyles
But preventing sexual exploitation, addressing inclusivity and diversity, dealing with mental health issues…these are serious societal problems for which responsibility needs to be shared. With tech companies, the police, social services, mental health experts, the media. And parents and the wider family. All of us.
The experience of living with Covid may, perhaps, have given parents a greater respect for the teaching profession as they battled with home schooling. I hope that everyone, not least government ministers with school-aged children, will have reflected on that experience and pause to think about just how much more is now, unrealistically, being asked of schools.