Government incompetence on a huge scale

Written by: Kevin Courtney | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Free school meals – exams – Covid testing – the digital divide. Schools are doing everything they can to support young people but are working in the face of incompetent national leadership, says Kevin Courtney

Schools and colleges have been welcoming all children and young people back for the first time in months. Teachers, leaders and support staff have done a magnificent job simultaneously educating pupils remotely and in school.

At all times, education professionals have done everything they could, throughout this pandemic, to support and protect children and young people. Leaders have had to cope with government incompetence on a huge scale.

Heads and teachers have planned for the safest possible return – seeking to minimise transmission through masks, testing, ventilation and bubbles. It has been a great testament to school staff's dedication and organisation that the testing programme has been implemented, overall, successfully and efficiently.

Schools are doing what they can to encourage take-up of tests, but this really needs a bigger ministerial push and an advertising effort. They need to explain how taking the test can keep communities safe.

Children and young people will be returning to schools and colleges in very different frames of mind. Some will be looking forward to seeing their friends. Others will be very anxious and nervous – particularly those who have not been able to engage fully in remote learning.

Education recovery plans must address these differences and be understood to be a long-term response to the pandemic. It is clear to us that education recovery funding will be needed for years to come.

Students taking GCSE, A levels and vocational courses have faced an anxious return to in-school teaching and learning. Their stress and anxiety about how they will be assessed and graded should have been completely unnecessary and would not have occurred if the government had followed joint union advice last year and prepared a plan B for the very likely event that exams could not be taken.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has to take responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of his inaction. Repeated pledges that exams would take place, in the middle of a pandemic, proved to be unachievable. Teachers, who now have 14 weeks in-school teaching with their exam classes, feel that they are carrying the can for ministerial incompetence.

Students taking exams next summer need to know now how those exams will be assessed and on what content. It is even more important for students taking vocational qualifications, many of which are assessed at earlier points during the year. Teachers and their students deserve better from this government than to have decisions made, almost always, at the last minute.

Meanwhile, the debilitating effect of poverty on the education and lives of children and their families has been starkly thrown into focus throughout the pandemic. Hunger, poor housing conditions and a lack of money to spend on anything to help with school work such as pens and paper let alone IT equipment such as laptops and routers shocked the nation. Marcus Rashford led the successful campaign on the shameful food poverty endured by millions of families, forcing a government U-turn on the provision of free school meals during school holidays.

The National Education Union, in partnership with the Daily Mirror, launched the Help a Child to Learn campaign distributing stationery supplies to schools most in need. The tragedy of this is that none of it should be necessary.

No child should be hungry, no child should have their ability to learn severely curtailed through extreme financial hardship. The heart-breaking stories which are all too familiar to schools and colleges must not be forgotten. We need to see a fundamental overhaul of the support given to families; schools need to be properly funded and the huge cuts to local authority support services must be addressed.

  • Kevin Courtney is the joint general secretary of the NEU Read his previous blogs for SecEd, via


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