Trying to put the wheels back on the Inspiration Trust project

Ian Duckett – NEU

Norman King – GMB

Wendy Smith – Unite

 On behalf of East Anglia Workers Coronavirus Support Group

On 29 June Dame Rachel De Souza wrote an article for the Eastern Daily Press, titled the ‘Norfolk Academy Trust reveals Saturday lessons and August return date for year 10 pupils’.

Like all schools and academies the COVID19 pandemic has taken the wheels off Inspiration Trust’s  schools in Norwich and across Norfolk. In the article, Dame De Souza states that pupils will be returning early from the summer break to make up for lessons lost during lockdown in a desperate effort to put the wheels back on. We think that there is another road, an alternative route out of this pandemic that our schools could take and build for a better future.

We feel that this quest to reopen, particularly during a period when the Coronavirus is seen to be on the rise in some areas, in the middle of what promises to be a very busy holiday period for the region is irresponsible and short sighted in the extreme.  It is plain that hubs of infection are springing up from as close as Suffolk, and in Leicester where schools are currently closing.  During the “opening” period people from these regions will be flocking to our city and holiday destinations raising the level of risk.

We are quite sure that the fixed date return will cause huge anxiety among parents, carers, teachers and students and the wider community.  If one thing is certain, it is that we do not know what the infection rates are going to be in the future.

The coalition of parents and teachers – Parents and Teachers for Education (PTE) founded by chief executive of the Inspiration Trust, Dame De Souza, hardly inspires confidence since I feel they cannot represent the interests all concerned parents, teachers, students and the wider community.  Furthermore it is an organisation formed by the trust itself.

Of course we want to reopen schools and colleges as soon as we can. But this needs to be safe for society, for children and their families and the staff who work in them. We also would like to point out that schools never closed. They have been open during lockdown to provide education in a safe environment for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

The pre-conditions for a safe return to schools are: much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases; a proper negotiated plan agreed with unions for social distancing; testing, testing and more testing; whole school strategy and protection for the vulnerable. Have these tests been met? We are far from convinced that they have been. We would respectfully ask the Dame where the evidence is that the Inspiration Trust and the government has met the requirements of these criteria.

We also worry about Health and Safety Officers, who are direct employees of the trust, making these judgements. Are teachers being bullied into returning to work without adequate safeguards being in place?  Do they even know what is in place?  Have the teaching unions been involved in the discussion?

It is already known that some of the school buildings are barely suitable, being disused industrial units.  How is social distancing to be maintained in these circumstances? No doubt there is a huge amount of work to be done before schools can be reopened safely, in terms of the curriculum and the wider community with regards to containment of the virus.

However, Dame Rachel is right about one thing. There is a crisis. It is a crisis of identity and – equally one of survival – for many of our young people lost somewhere in a wilderness between education and social care. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this worse.

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments stand out and are frightening: “there will be all sorts of problems in terms of social unrest, violence amongst young people that we’ve not seen before”.   This suggests that the purpose of our education system is no more than to contain the youth population.  I put it to him that many among this population are educating themselves in matters that are of direct concern.  This is witnessed by the movements that have focused on the virus, to name one, East Anglia Workers Coronavirus Support Group who have held online meetings, written open letters and supported the Norfolk NEU petition and who are holding weekly protests at Norfolk County Hall regarding the safe reopening of schools.

Without the interventions of an emergency post-14 curriculum with slimmed down knowledge content and an emphasis on skills like communication, problem-solving, co-operation learning and employability rather than Dame Rachel’s notion of “Saturday lessons and August return date for year 10 pupils’” many will not make it out of the post-COVID-19 wilderness, will have reached the point of no return and will be lost somewhere between education and social care.

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