The government announced on Monday that, by the end of this week, it would have a plan for every child in England to return to education, in every setting and without restriction, in September. The minister, Gavin Williamson, would not be drawn on more detail, saying that he still had consultation to do. It’s late in the day to be consulting on something that will definitely be ready by Friday – which, combined with Williamson’s personal reputation as a nitwit, plus the involvement of a prime minister who spreads implausibility wherever he goes, leaves parents pretty much where we started: wanting to believe, knowing we’d be fools to.
It is impossible to overstate how consequential education is to the end of lockdown, the resurgence of economic activity and the long-term future of the nation, so it’s unsettling to observe how little the government has prepared for its resumption. But we shouldn’t mistake its lack of a plan around the classroom for the absence of a strategy. As we saw quite plainly in the PMQs of two weeks ago, Johnson seeks to make this a wedge issue for Labour: what was Starmer’s view on schools? Was he prepared to go head to head against the teaching unions? Commentators dutifully picked this up, Nick Robinson on Today asking: “Are you willing to say to the teachers’ unions: ‘I now as Labour leader believe it’s safe for children to be back in school?’” And Johnson, submitting himself to a rare interrogation for the inaugural 8am slot on Times Radio, rammed it home: “We need everybody to understand that school is safe. It would be very helpful if our friends in the teaching unions really delivered that message loud and clear.”
To present this as the dilemma – a government desperate to do right by its young citizens and their families, with its hands tied by the internecine squabbling between the centre-left opposition and hard-left unions – is completely absurd. The National Education Union (NEU) has been quite transparent, publishing its five tests. Three of them are exactly the same as scientists, economists and public health experts in the UK and across the world have been saying all along about any relaxation of lockdown. The number of cases must go down. There needs to be an agreed plan for social distancing – the NEU doesn’t even take a view between 2 metres and 1 metre, merely asking that the government should have a rule, say what it is and explain how schools could observe it. And testing has to be available, so that schools don’t unknowingly become hotspots. The final two points are a set of protocols for schools to follow if they do get an outbreak, and a policy on vulnerable staff. For goodness sake, it’s a union: if it didn’t take a view on protecting its members from potentially lethal hazard at work it wouldn’t be worthy of the name.
With the aim of wrong-footing an opposition leader who is too competent for comfort, the Conservatives are trying to paint themselves as the regular Joes fighting for ordinary children against the hard-left dinosaurs who care only for their own interests. It doesn’t stick at all. Anybody with even a passing interest in schools can see for themselves that there are few people who care more about the education, life chances, development and potential of children than teachers.
So why bother creating this false narrative, which nobody will buy, and is unlikely to get the government off the hook for a disorderly or delayed return to school?
The answer goes back to Michael Gove, great scourge of the teaching unions from his days as education secretary. Along with his then-adviser Dominic Cummings, he crafted an image of state education, throughout the 2010s, in perpetual crisis. Teachers had been lulled into laziness by the complacency of local authorities, grades were constantly inflated to mask the mediocrity of the learning, and beneath it all was the “Blob”: teaching unions and any other professional stakeholders who disputed this account. The life’s purpose of Gove, Blob-finder General, was to bring so much infamy to people who knew about education that the job could be gifted instead to people who didn’t, for the purpose of the vast waste of public money that was the free schools idea. Or so I thought at the time. In fact, beneath that immediate policy agenda was a much more important foundational project, to discredit trade unions altogether.
Of course this has a great deal of pedigree in the party; it is how Thatcher made her name. It is how John Major lost his, never having an enemy, only a cones hotline. Yet in its Goveian iteration it has much more in common with the agenda of the US libertarian right. The conservatives are not trying to change the terrain of any given sector, so much as delegitimise unions altogether by constructing this fantasy oppositionalism in which you have common sense, the little guy and the government on one side, and the unions and other assorted elites on the other. It is, in many ways, the toughest nut for a rightwing populist administration to crack: civil servants, judges, people who live in cities, people who drink cappuccino, people who care about universal human rights – all of these can look like a metropolitan elite if you squint hard enough. Institutions that represent, by definition, the combined power of members who would otherwise be powerless are much harder to tar with that brush, so it has to be done by syllogism – the hard left is an elite. Unions are hard left. Therefore unions are an elite.
I personally don’t think anyone will swallow this pabulum, and it will only serve as a reminder: whether it’s children or education, everything is fair game in this phase of the culture war.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist