Concerns over putting teachers and pupils 'back on the front line'
As pupils prepare to return to class tomorrow, Clare Flintoff, of the Asset Education Trust, has admitted there are concerns about children and staff being back on the 'front line'.
As primary school children and staff return to their classrooms after the Christmas break for the start of the January 2021 term we find ourselves at probably the most challenging point of the pandemic so far, as we are confronted by ethical, as well as operational, issues and dilemmas about how to proceed.
We know how important education is and none of us want to see primary children entirely learning from home again. But there are some worrying statistics about transmission in the 0-9 age range and a new variant of the virus that is reportedly up to 70% more infectious. We are told to continue with safety measures that were proving pretty reliable before the new variant made an appearance but there is no new guidance about additional measures that might be needed given the higher incidence and spread, and we are concerned about putting our staff and children, some of them with vulnerabilities themselves, back on the front line as they return to mix in groups of thirty plus in close proximity where social distancing is an impossibility.
Schools, Education Trusts and Local Authorities are required to do what the government asks of us. We have no authority to make decisions that keep schools open or closed without government and public health approval as we learnt before Christmas when Greenwich Council in south-east London was forced into a u-turn and had to reopen their schools in the last week of term as a result of government legal action.
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It is times like these when the values and priorities of our decision makers need to be right - and firmly rooted in the public interest. They need to be able to demonstrate that the best interests of the public at large are behind their decision making and they need to have proved where their priorities lie time and again through their actions so that the public can have trust in what they say.
I am reminded of the ‘Nolan Principles’ - principles that all holders of public office, those funded by the public purse, are expected to live up to. In 1994 a new ‘Committee on Standards in Public Life’, chaired by Lord Nolan, was founded by the Conservative government. Its role was to advise the Prime Minister on ethical issues relating to standards in public life and to promote a code of conduct based on seven principles. These principles form the basis of the way that all of us who earn a living or receive funding from public taxation - those in national and local government, the civil service, those working in health, education, social and care services and all those in private companies who are delivering public services - are accountable to the people of this country. If you are a school governor the chances are that you will have signed a code of conduct that references the following ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’:
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Selflessness – Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
Integrity – Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
Objectivity – Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
Accountability – Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
Openness – Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
Honesty – Holders of public office should be truthful
Leadership – Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
Committee on Standards in Public Life: Annual Report 2017-18", p. 2
We are facing a pandemic. Last minute changes of heart, u-turns in decision making are all to be expected as we react to an ever-changing situation. What we need to know is that our decision makers are acting selflessly, with integrity, honesty and openness, and without thought to their personal gain. Having this reassurance would make all the difference.