A wise old educationalist said something profound to me a little while ago: “Primary schools are the only moral institutions we have left.”
My first reaction was that this was hyperbole. But his words played on my mind and in the end I decided that my friend had a point.
What he was elegantly and efficiently saying was that much of the ethical scaffolding of society had been ripped away – he was an old lefty, so he almost certainly blamed Thatcher – and the only institutions that ordinary people could rely on for a moral compass were their primary schools.
He was speaking to an important truth about the relationships between communities and their teachers, especially their headteachers.
In many places – especially in deprived estates and left-behind towns – they are much more than simply school leaders: they are community leaders, community organisers and figures of enormous respect. Their schools are anchor points in neighbourhoods that are often chaotic and in which much of the traditional fabric has broken down.
Especially now that the historical idea of the community GP has been eroded, churchgoing has been so widely abandoned and local government emasculated, heads and teachers are often the most trusted source of support and information. This is not a role that all teachers signed up for when starting their PGCEs, but it is one that many step up to, some by choice, some by necessity.
If my friend’s observation was right when he first said it to me, it has now developed an almost prophetic quality, remembered with the perspective of an 18-month pandemic.
This is why ministers need to be so careful in the next few weeks as they attempt to unwind whole class- and year-group “bubbling”, and try to get schools back to normal. They might think that parents are cross about their kids being sent home for endless isolations – with all the disruption that follows – and they would be right, but the people these parents will listen to first on this aspect of the Great Unlocking are teachers, with national politicians last.
The relationship between parents and primaries has always been a tight one. The sense of ownership that mums and dads have over them is strong, but so is the sense of collective endeavour.
I have run countless focus groups with parents of primary-aged children during lockdown, and there is one consistent narrative that has only got stronger: they believe their schools have done their very best in incredibly trying circumstances. They have been impressed by the way teachers learnt to cope with remote teaching and almost universally agree that while they struggled to get a grip on the tech in 2020, they were really delivering by the time of the most recent lockdown.
Polling supports this. Public First, where I am a director, recently carried out a survey for the Centre for Policy Studies that found respect for teachers among parents is high, that they often think teachers have worked hard in the pandemic, and that they trust their opinion.
Securing their consent for the changes will be essential if the government is to successfully end Covid protocols, bubbling and social distancing. However, if primary school staff tell parents that the school is not safe, they are very likely to believe them – and the changes will face widespread and even fatal opposition.
It is interesting that until you have kids, it is easy to totally miss the primaries nestled in the streets around where you live. This is perhaps because there are so many of them – about 17,000 in England alone.
But once you drop off your little one on that unforgettable first day of reception year, this ignorance is reversed irrevocably: the school becomes the very centre of your community. This bond has only been strengthened in the past 18 months. Ministers would do well to remember it.