Politicians must recognise teachers’ value

Especially in relation to the disadvantaged, and specifically in using education of adults as well as children to counter racism, says SSAT chief executive Sue Williamson. And that is why we are proud to be awarding the RACE Charter Mark.

The last six months have been a strange mixture of inspiration and sorrow. In March, SSAT staff started to work from home, and I was delighted to see how quickly everyone adapted. We were able to stay in touch with schools and respond to their needs. As a Chair of a MAT, I saw at first hand the amazing work of teachers and school leaders to provide on-line lessons, and teach vulnerable children, as well as children of essential workers. The professionalism and commitment of all staff was evident. School leaders also ensured that disadvantaged young people received FSM vouchers and worked with community groups to get computer hardware and broadband connections to those youngsters. It was a fantastic effort and we celebrated this with schools. Schools did not close their doors, but were at the heart of their communities. The vast majority of parents recognised this – it was disappointing that some politicians did not.

Throughout the pandemic the guidance and support from the DfE has been woeful. They have not listened enough to experienced school leaders and teachers. I think it is good that inexperienced teachers get an opportunity to work at the DfE, but there also needs to be a number of experienced senior leaders who have encountered the challenges of running a school.

The examinations debacle was totally predictable. It was heartbreaking to listen to the students talking on television and radio about the loss of a place on their chosen university course. Young people are more than data – they are individuals with hopes and dreams. Now is the time to review our examination system – all stakeholders must be involved, but the voice of the teaching profession must be given particular attention.

Treat teachers like doctors

Teachers and school leaders must be treated as true professionals in the same way as doctors. My husband has been unwell, and he developed sepsis. He was taken to hospital on a blue light – supported by a senior paramedic and two paramedics. They then handed him over to the A&E specialists and he was then admitted to intensive care. The intensive care team led on the treatment, and called in other teams as required. His life was saved by brilliant teamwork from experts. They also took the time to explain every step of the treatment to me over the phone as I was not allowed to visit. All questions were answered fully or I was connected to the professional who could deal with a particular point. My admiration and respect is boundless. I believe teachers deserve the same respect – we know how children learn. We want to help all young people to live fulfilled lives.

As a nation we need to agree what education we want for our children. SSAT will be engaging with schools to agree our desired outcomes for education. As I outlined in Deep Support for Social Justice we need to redesign the connectivity and coherence between education, social services, health, employers, and voluntary organisations – there is a limited pot of money, which needs to be used wisely. We need to remove the barriers to learning and help the long-term disadvantaged. If you have examples of how your school is doing this, we would really like to hear from you.

Schools against racism

Covid-19 has revealed starkly that the disadvantaged are the ones that suffer more. Schools cannot cure the ills of the world, but we can recommend practical solutions to politicians.

The death of George Floyd on 25 May was shocking, and I found it extremely difficult to watch the film. We have been discussing racism at SSAT, and our desire to be proactive in promoting strategies to counter racism. I was 12 when Martin Luther King Jr gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Both men had inspired me to be interested in politics and in the civil rights movement. At 17 years of age I was devastated when Dr King and Robert F Kennedy were killed. In the five years between the murders, I had followed the battle for civil rights in America and naively believed that racism was a problem for the USA and countries like South Africa, but that the UK was doing much better. I was at school in London and my classmates were a diverse group, and I thought nothing of it.

However, in 1968 not only did we have the horrific murders of King and Kennedy, but we also had the Rivers of Blood speech by Enoch Powell. I remember the dockers marched in support of Powell, and it shook me out of complacency and opened my eyes to the racism in this country. I worked for ten years in the NHS and multicultural teams were the norm, but friends and colleagues shared some of the racist abuse that they experienced on a daily basis. When I became a teacher, my first two schools were mainly white – one consisting of children from working class families and the other with a majority of middle class families. My next job was as a deputy head in Slough, and over 70% of the school population were from an Asian background. I learnt much about the different religions and cultures, and the challenges the young people faced. My headship was in Lincolnshire and my school was 99% white. I went on a basketball trip to Leicester during Diwali and was appalled by the comments made by the students – they did not mean to be racist, but their comments were dreadful. I knew then that we had to work very hard with the students on multi-cultural education. Ignorance must not be an excuse for racism.

The events of this year have sadly confirmed that we are a long way from achieving King’s dream. I want to see equality, social justice, and a society where diversity is valued. In 1963, Dr King said “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilising drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” And as Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world…

This is why SSAT is joining with Fig Tree International to launch the RACE Charter Mark – we want to work with schools to change the world.

Race and Conscious Equality (RACE) Charter Mark is for schools wishing to demonstrate their commitment to action and improvement in relation to race equality in all aspects of their work, as educators, employers and community leaders.

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