The most important resource in my classroom is not state-of-the-art computers, the overhead projector or interactive whiteboard.
It’s me. The teacher. And that’s why I am desperate to get back to work, to do what I do best.
I have always been proud of my job as a computer sciences teacher at a North London secondary state school. But, after two months of lockdown, with my pupils forced to stay at home, I’ve never been more aware of how vital my role is.
Without a teacher in the classroom, to provide stability and expertise, focus and inspiration, how can children learn? There can be no doubt that the widespread closure of schools nationwide is causing irreparable damage to my pupils’ lives.
Without a teacher in the classroom, to provide stability and expertise, focus and inspiration, how can children learn? (Stock image)
For many, especially those from deprived areas or in homes where learning has no value, an education is the springboard — perhaps the only one — for those children who aspire to something different, to getting good qualifications leading to a fulfilling job and perhaps a better quality of life.
To put it bluntly, their time in school is often the only opportunity they get to make something of themselves.
I am not saying this out of any sense of self-importance. It’s simply that my frustration with what I see happening around me — with the teaching unions and commentators — is building to boiling point.
Every day, I think of the damage being done to my pupils’ prospects, to their mental well-being — the agony of having prepared for GCSEs and A-levels that they will never take — and to their hopes and dreams by the closure of schools.
For the evidence is irrefutable: long-distance learning via video links and emails is no substitute for a teacher in the schoolroom. And what about the children who don’t even get access to that?
Like most teachers, I am wrestling daily with the challenge of setting coursework over the internet. I teach mostly Key Stage Three, with pupils aged 13 to 15, laying the groundwork before the crucial GCSE year.
My subject is computer science, so I ought to be better placed than many of my colleagues to run such lessons effectively. But every day I hear from frustrated teenagers who want to do the work but can’t because the tech is failing them, poor broadband or faulty or dated electronics.
Some have smartphones, some have tablets, a few have laptops or even desktop computers. But unlike the slick digital tools or expensive gadgets pupils in the private sector are able to draw upon, many of my pupils’ devices are five years old or more — virtually obsolete in computing terms.
Pictured: Teacher Calvin Robinson (right) with the former Education Secretary Justine Greening (left)
Often they will have to share these devices with other family members. Their parents might also be working from home, and will need the computer.
In a classroom, every student is equal. But that is no longer true when the pupils are trying to learn at home, where some have a room of their own while others might be sharing a two-bedroom flat with five other people amid a volatile, unstable environment.
Is it any surprise that, according to a poll by the Sutton Trust and Public First, pupils at private schools are twice as likely to receive daily online tuition as their state educated peers?
Of course, this is hardly the fault of parents, many of whom have been left feeling utterly helpless by this crisis. They are already worried about loved ones they cannot see, about their jobs and their incomes.
On top of all that, it’s unreasonable to expect them to be able to assist young teenagers with schoolwork, especially in a subject like mine where the basic curriculum has changed beyond recognition in the past two decades.
A global review of 78 studies from around the world conducted in partnership with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found that there were few cases of children having passed on coronavirus to adults. (Stock image)
Could you confidently help a 14-year-old complete their computer science coursework? It’s foolish to suppose anyone but a teacher could do it well. And that applies to all subjects, from modern languages to maths and all points in between.
As well as teaching, I am a consultant to about 200 schools across London, and I know there is some fantastic work being done online. Teachers and pupils are responding with huge innovation.
But that can’t hide the fact that there is no unified educational policy on remote teaching. We’re largely making this up as we go along, and that isn’t good enough.
In the future, schools need to establish common practices, and ensure some sort of uniformity with standard equipment and software.
That doesn’t help pupils today. They need action right now — otherwise we risk leaving an entire generation of children with a year-long black mark on their education.
That’s why it was unacceptable for the head of the National Education Union (NEU) to say this week that teachers should ‘await further union advice’ before co-operating with Government plans for a partial return to school on June 1.
I am not a union member, and don’t take my instructions from the NEU. I’ll listen to the Government advice and place my trust in the decisions of my headteacher.
But what I do, as a single individual, is scarcely relevant: the Covid-19 pandemic demands a collective determination and pragmatism as never before.
That’s why I despair of the union response and their attempt to make party political capital from the crisis.
The future of our children is at stake — and yet the very body dedicated to upholding the principle of education is prepared to sacrifice that and defer the re-opening of schools, until next year or perhaps indefinitely, while making unrealistic demands about safety.
Of course, no one — not doctors, not the Government — will ever be able to promise that there is zero risk for children from all infectious diseases in the classroom. Rigid social distancing will never be practical in schools.
But Sir David Spiegelhalter, one of the UK’s top statisticians, has described the threat the coronavirus poses to the young as ‘staggeringly low’.
Why can’t we use common sense to implement safety measures — and drill them into pupils — to minimise the risk?
As well as regular hand-washing and perhaps the wearing of masks, we can introduce one-way systems in the corridors, to reduce the jostling and melees between lessons.
Meanwhile, we must not let fear blinker the evidence-based conclusions being drawn by scientists every day.
A global review of 78 studies from around the world conducted in partnership with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found that there were few cases of children having passed on coronavirus to adults.
It is crucial, too, to take into account the age profile of teachers. In London, for example, they tend to be around the age of 30 — and all the data suggests that this age group, while never guaranteed immunity, is relatively safe from the worst that coronavirus can do.
Of course, I accept that anyone with underlying health conditions, or whose age puts them at greater risk, should not be forced to return to the classroom.
Indeed, for the time being I think attendance ought not to be compulsory and parents who choose not to send their children back to school must not be stigmatised — it would be very wrong to impose fines on vulnerable people who fear their child might bring disease into their home, however unlikely that becomes.
Anyone who develops symptoms — child or teacher — must self-isolate.
But keeping schools shut is simply not an option I can endorse when the future of so many is at stake.
Never in my career have I been so aware of the importance of teaching. And never have I wanted to do it more.