Ian Bennett is the headteacher of Downshall Primary School in Essex. Writing for the Leaders Council of Great Britain & Northern Ireland, Bennett offers his reflections on the Covid-19 pandemic thus far, issuing a rallying call to fellow members of the teaching profession that soon, as the UK begins to emerge from lockdown, it will be their time to step up as public sector workers.
Having worked in Primary Education for over 30 years, I have often asked myself why I feel so passionate about it. Why do we educate our children? I always come back to the same answer: so humanity can thrive. It is surely education that marked the greatest evolutionary change: enabling us to move from survival of the fittest mindset to survival of the wisest. We have been through the biggest challenge to our survival my generation has ever faced. Our natural instinct has been to lock down and stay safe; rightly so. During this period, our NHS, care sector and other key workers have been the heroes. But it is always education and us, the teachers, that move us from the dark phases in our history to the light. We get to transform misery to energy. That is why I love my vocation.
Celebrating the anniversary of VE day just a few weeks ago, we were all comparing the war time enemy of freedom to the invisible virus; the bravery of our NHS and public sector workers to that of our troops in battle. While this is all true and valid, it was the lessons of war that fuelled the next generation of hope, the reforms that Butler introduced during the war itself that took the dark days of the blitz and brought opportunity and greater equality. It was the teachers in the new free education that transformed the message from those who sacrificed and died in war to one of passion for life and equality. It was not their death that was to be their legacy, but their passion for life.
Surely that is what we as teachers must do when we return to school; ensure that the legacy of so many who have lost their lives is not one of despair, but one of new values. We must ensure that our heroes who we have clapped, those who look after the frail and the sick, who stock our shelves in supermarkets or clean our streets and bins, are worth as much to us as those who generate wealth and entertainment. Let the legacy of those who lost their lives on the front lines against the fight against Covid-19 shape the currency -20, the currency of our thinking and how we show our values through spending in 2020.
It was Nelson Mandela who famously said that education is the great engine of change. I was so inspired as a young man watching Mandela move from his enforced lockdown of 27 years to taking a country from the darkness of apartheid and into the hope of freedom. Probably the greatest example of how survival of the wisest can be so much stronger in the long-term vision of man than survival of the fittest.
Once again it is us, the teachers who can transform the future through education and the opening of schools. Lord Jonathan Sacks in his transformative book – The Great Partnership – talks about how science and faith are great partners in building the future. Science, he says, tells us what is, faith tells us what can be. Surely education is faith, vision and hope incarnate.
Only a year ago, we were all moved by the children of this generation leading the way in climate change action. This year we have seen the apparent anomaly of our children and schools, usually the epicentre of infection, being the oasis of minimal transmission. I have been in my school throughout the lockdown and we have not seen cases of our key worker families or vulnerable children catching coronavirus. Quite the opposite, schools have been community centres of hope. Enabling the key workers to go to work, ensuring the well-being of our most vulnerable children and opening and distributing food parcels for those in need. This very special generation of children deserve a very exceptional and inspiring community of teachers to enable them to translate the lessons of lockdown in to a brighter, freer future.
When consulting my staff about how to open our school after lockdown, I shared with them the following message:
Public Service at its best
Many of you will have chosen education as your profession for the same reason that I did. We want to contribute to society. Up until this point it has been the NHS and the Care workers, supermarket workers and London transport, and many more who have seen us through the lockdown. Shortly, when it is safe, it is our turn to step up to the plate and safely help the country take small steps to recovery. As I said in the staff consultation about opening schools in June, lockdown has not been cost neutral. The spike in deaths, not coronavirus related from April 2019 to April 2020 is very concerning. I hope that with all the protective measures we will put in place, whenever our call comes, we will stand ready to return to work to lead the way to recovery. The slogan “our job changes lives” never has been so true.