Schools U-Turn a Rare Victory in the Age of Anti-Experts
Today the country woke up to the news that the government had reversed its plans to re-open schools for all primary school pupils before the end of July. This brought the latest round of Tory union-bashing to an end, as they finally listened to the concerns of those in the industry after a long battle, played out in the public sphere.
Predictably, the usual suspects in the tabloid media made attempts to gaslight teachers and turn public opinion against those in the profession. This has led to the rolling out of some ancient myths on social media, namely about teachers having 13 holiday weeks and only working 6 hours a day. Those of us with relatives in the sector know that this is of course nonsense – if such luxurious benefits were on offer, why are education recruitment targets failing to be met?
Of course, everyone in the country wants schools to be open as quickly as possible, but it also must be done safely – this is a crucial distinction that the government failed to recognise. The plan to re-admit all 4-11 year olds, many of whom will be unable to socially distance, when our infection rate is still higher than many other countries, is absurd. This view has been supported by the British Medical Association and the Independent SAGE Committee – most would agree that both organisations have more experience in the scientific field than those in the Cabinet who were advocating a different course of action.
The most ignorant intervention came from Michael Gove, a man almost universally unpopular in the sector, who suggested that if teachers “really care about children”, they’d “want them to be in school” – implying that teachers worried about the safety of themselves and their pupils were crying wolf. He raised concerns that the attainment gap between rich and poor children would widen if pupils were unable to continue their education before the Summer. This is a legitimate concern, but somewhat hypocritical coming from a Tory Cabinet Minister when his own party’s education cuts have led to some schools closing their doors on a Friday afternoon.
This arrogant dismissal of expert opinion was of course started by Gove himself, when he claimed that the British public had “had enough of experts”, during the 2016 referendum. This attempt to treat facts and experience as equals to feelings and ideology, for the sake of balance, has been misguided. This week, James O’Brien recounted how, as a Newsnight presenter, he had to conduct a debate between MP Andrea Leadsom and former head of the World Trading Organisation (WTO) Pascal Lamy, about the meaning of WTO terms. Whilst of course everyone’s opinions are valuable in a democracy, competence and experience make some people more qualified than others in their field. For example, my views on how to be a Support Worker are more useful than Leadsom’s, whereas her insight of how to be MP for South Northamptonshire carries more weight than mine.
Although it is positive that the government has reversed its’ ill-judged plans, the issue with false equivalence remains. Gove and many others who were so dismissive of expert opinion 4 years ago are now holding high office. This means they have a unique responsibility to restore public trust in respectable individuals and institutions, particularly in such uncertain times. Let’s hope today’s decision is part of a wider change of direction in rhetoric and government policy.