As we enter week two of the great schools Covid-19 shut-down it’s clear that we’re living in extraordinary times. Awful news from Italy, Spain and elsewhere across the globe is one thing, but the crisis hits home when you learn friends and colleagues starting to test positive – like my  friend, a chair of governors at a small primary school, fighting for his life in an induced coma in hospital. My thoughts are with his family.

The second week of the school shut-down brings a mixture of emotions, from inspiration to frustration, even anger.

Initiatives like Thursday’s ‘Clap for Carers’ brings out the best in humanity. Impressive food-bank deliverers, community and sports organisations pitching in, supermarkets setting ‘social distancing’ standards and countless acts of the kindness of strangers have inspired in terrible times.

In our own ‘parish’, NEU members Celia O’Hagan and Audrey Currie at Stranmillis University College made an important, impromptu contribution, developing a support programme, “Teaching and supporting Remote Learners Online”. Stranmillis is keen to support teachers and lecturers by offering this course to all sectors by demonstrating some basic and new technologies to promote teacher presence during the crisis-required home-schooling.  Celia O'Hagan (Senior Lecturer in Education, with over 20 years of experience in blended and remote learning) said, when asked about the course:

"This is an important time for us as a College to reach out to co-professionals and teaching graduates, to reinforce the work of teachers and to help them to make the difference to our children and young people during this time of such crisis for schools and colleges. We, at Stranmillis, are champions of learning and teaching technologies and will share, during this short course, ideas in support of remote teaching including how to produce webinar lessons and how to use video to support pupils in their learning from home.  Our aspiration is to ensure a teaching presence at this time, for staff and pupil wellbeing and care".

To access, please click on www.stran.ac.uk/home/teaching-and-supporting-remote-learners-online/ 

Unexpected leaders, Swann and Sunak

Crisis requires the state to “stand big”, and act quickly. Crisis also has a habit of throwing up the unexpected. Who’d have thought Robin Swann and Rishi Sunak would rise to shine as leaders?

At local level, Robin Swann, as Health Minister, is proving to be a humane, genuine and empathetic leader, communicating in the straight-forward, simple language required – yet faced with extreme shortages of kit, testing capacity and straining to protect his front-line key workers.

Set beside that we see a governing Executive riven with division. A mid-week spat on the health and safety implications of a carpet factory in mid-Ulster staying open gave way to a surreal dispute on the airwaves of BBC’s Nolan Show on the merits of the Tayto crisps factory remaining in production! Both ignore the clear “Stay at Home” pleas of Belfast Health Trust’s respiratory team, but the point is deeper. In the midst of an unparalleled crisis, our divided devolved government can’t even sort out its difference behind closed doors. Message to Stormont?  Waken up, guys, we need a single script!

At UK level, the initial Darwinism, or “survival of the fittest” of the ‘herd immunity’ strategy gave way to more pragmatic approaches. The laissez faire approach of the UK Government, which would have caused the weak - particularly the elderly- to perish in even greater numbers than they are doing now – has given way in short order. The ‘chaos theory’ geeks in Downing Street have had to cede to the greater number who believe the weak should be protected. Prescient local commentators like Joe Brolly rubbished the UK approach noting that ‘herd immunity’ is a fact that happens after an epidemic, but it’s not a policy![1]

Extraordinary efforts are only now underway to overcome the UK’s unpreparedness for what needs to be done – a ‘good practice’ strategy of mass testing, contact tracing and isolation that have staunched infection and mortality rates in countries like South Korea.

The practised and shallow Churchillianism of Boris Johnston (a deeply unimpressive and ‘unserious’ PM for the times we’re in) has given space for Chancellor Rishi Sunak to shine. ‘Cometh the hour’, Sunak – appointed, ironically, as a nodding-dog ‘patsy’ - has proven his mettle as anything but. All Rishi Sunak’s previous instincts have been from the Hayek-school – in plain language, a free-market Thatcherite. His initial budget adjustments reflected that worldview. Yet, under conditions of extreme financial meltdown, the collapse of sterling, the near shut-down of the financial markets by the Bank of England, an impressive wages and benefits bail-out package was agreed.  Gaps for the self-employed and the sick are being plugged, quantitative easing (printing money) is back, interest rates lowered to 0.1%. Austerity and budget discipline are forgotten, with the budget deficit predicted for 2020-21 estimated at £200 billion. It could be more! Robert Chote, Director of the Office of Budget Responsibility was on the money, saying: “When the fire is large enough you just spray the water and hope for the best”

And that’s not all.

Rishi Sunak has accepted that wartime finance is back. Next comes state-direction of production for vaccines, respiratory gear, masks, diagnostic tests, the food supply and more. Private hospitals will be taken over, workers in all sectors will be marshalled. Thatcherite individualism, the “no such thing as society” is done. The state standing tall, intervening and planning, the CBI and TUC on one page and social partnership across the society are the orders of the day. And the state-shrinking, welfare-loathing right have no option but to swallow it.

Schools – close more now!

Finally, back to schools. NEU are concerned that the Health Trust’s primary message – “Stay at home; Please Stay at Home; We beg you to Stay at Home” - is being undermined by the number of schools remaining open.  At the last count (Wednesday 25th) 488 schools were open, nearly half the schools’ estate. It is, of course, right that schools play their part in receiving the children of key workers. We support that. But keeping a very large body of schools open, to receive a very small number of key-workers children, is disproportionate. We are putting staff in harm’s way needlessly. School openings need to be rationalised, and quickly.

Look after each other. Stay safe.

Mark Langhammer

Regional Secretary, NEU, Northern Ireland

 

[1] See Joe Brolly OTB interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekjVAhuEUH8