Schools will continue to help the vulnerable even if the government won’t

Tom Clements

Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke has said that he didn’t vote to extend free school meals during holidays in the coronavirus crisis because he was wary of “adding additional administrative burden to schools”. While it is always nice to hear concerns about teacher workload from an MP – especially one that has consistently voted in favour of real-term cuts to school funding – it is important to expose this sentiment for the offensive nonsense that it is.

The simple fact is that schools have stepped up throughout this crisis to support families in need. Without fuss or complaint, thousands of school staff – both teaching and non-teaching – have gone above and beyond to limit the impact of the crisis on the children that we are fortunate enough to serve.

Throughout lockdown, schools remained open so that vulnerable children were able to continue learning. Lessons were taught, independent study spaces were staffed and hot meals were provided. At the height of the crisis, teachers, support staff and dinner ladies put children’s interests above their own. They provided a sense of normality and safety for pupils who really needed it.

When the pandemic turned the world upside down, schools transformed into community centres, offering support to families in need. Advice offered on applying for Universal Credit for parents thrown into unemployment by the effects of lockdown. Food parcels ordered, packaged and delivered to families who needed them. School budgets squeezed to provide laptops and learning materials to children who needed to study. Free school meal vouchers ordered, despite a website that crashed at the slightest level of demand.

When September brought an insistence for schools to re-open despite fears of a second wave, teachers answered the call. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work, writing contingency plan after contingency plan to create an environment that was a safe place for children to learn and staff to work. All of this was done in the face of ever-changing – and often contradictory – government advice, which was often released on a Friday night in a meek effort to avoid scrutiny. Eventually, thanks to the efforts of school leaders and estates staff, children were welcomed back on time.

Now that schools are fully reopen, staff have ensured that the experience for pupils has been as normal as possible. Year group bubbles, staggered starts, face coverings at social times and countless other safety measures that were put in place to allow schools to reopen have changed things. But thanks to the kindness and warmth of teachers and teaching assistants, children have been able to take these changes in their stride. Learning has continued, friendships have blossomed and the simple joys of childhood have restarted.

This has happened despite the increased demands that the reopening of schools has placed on staff. Remote learning must be planned alongside normal classes to ensure that children who are isolating or shielding don’t miss out on the education to which they are entitled. Pupils need to be offered catch-up lessons to ensure that attainment gaps that grew during lockdown don’t become a chasm of underachievement in the future.

Many teachers now need to cover lessons for staff who have been forced to self-isolate due to exposure to positive cases. School leaders are having to learn the differences between common coughs and colds and the symptoms of Covid-19 so that they can decide which pupils can stay in school and who should isolate. School budgets are being stretched ever thinner to pay for cleaning products and face masks with no expectation of that money being replaced.

This brings us to free school meals and the government’s refusal to provide food for the 3.4 million children living in poverty. Although it was good to see the issue receiving the national prominence it deserved, you shouldn’t assume that schools were waiting for the government to step in. Teachers have been raising money for the families hit hardest by the crisis since September. Staff at my school raised over £5,000 through a virtual marathon – but ours is not an isolated example.

Up and down the country, thousands of food parcels have been bought and sent out by schools to children who are in need. While MPs have discussed and prevaricated, schools have been getting ready. The last act of a long half-term by many teachers will have been to deliver a bag of shopping that will prevent a week of hunger for a local family.

So while Alec Shelbrooke, Phillip Davies and countless other Tory MPs will spend half-term scraping the barrel of their conscience for excuses to not support Marcus Rashford, school staff will keep going. We will continue to do whatever it takes, without judgement or complaint, to support the children who need it most. Not because we want to, but because the last decade of Tory austerity and negligence means that we must.

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