Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has warned that the government’s “demonisation” of teachers during the Covid crisis is putting staff at risk of violence from pupils and parents.
In a Zoom call with more than 3,000 teachers and support staff in the National Education Union, Khan said that ministers and special advisers including Dominic Cummings should be praising their profession as “heroes” rather than denigrating them.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson last week said that the NEU’s call to close schools during the national lockdown would put in jeopardy the education of some of the most disadvantaged children.
But Khan made a strong defence of teachers and suggested that he backed the NEU’s move towards a rota system that would allow older pupils to alternate weeks at home and in school.
In the same meeting, NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted also revealed that members were reporting a significant worsening of pupil behaviour in recent weeks as the strain of home life was brought into schools.
Speaking on the Zoom call on Tuesday night, the Mayor hit out at ministers including Williamson and at the term “The Blob”, which had been used by Cummings when he was an aide to Michael Gove to describe civil servants and teachers as being opposed to reform.
“If politicians and the media attack teachers today, we can’t be surprised if tomorrow parents, pupils and others are abusive and violent towards teachers,” he said.
“That’s why language matters. This ‘Blob’ stuff is really important. I think the way we treat educators in the country is outrageous.”
Khan said that he had “a responsibility to big you up, justifiably so for the role you play”, rather than “the demonisation of your profession” by others.
“It really upsets me because I wouldn’t have achieved a fraction of what I have in my life but for teachers,” he said.
“You’re among the heroes of this crisis. You don’t deserve to be treated in the way you have. Rather than being thanked by this government, let’s be clear, you’ve been attacked.
“And worse still your commitment to supporting your pupils has shamefully been called into question, when I know how passionate you are, about your profession, how much you care about your students, our children.”
NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted had told the Mayor that the union was due to put out a new discussion paper on the benefits of a shift to rotas for older pupils in order to make schools safer and to reduce pressures caused by self-isolation of staff and students.
She said that some sixth form colleges had proved that the system would work, with half pupils in class and half at home, alternating each week.
“The big advantage of this is it halves the footprint in the college and it allows social distancing. And it means that the R rate, the infection rate in those colleges is far less,” she said.
“We’re also clear that students who can’t learn from home, don’t have the [internet] access, don’t have the room, don’t have the IT equipment, they would need to stay and be taught full time in school or in college so that they keep full time learning.”
Khan replied: “All the points Mary was making don’t just benefit teachers and staff, they benefit pupils, parents, families in addressing the virus.
“As a union you are a classic example of not simply arguing for the producer, your members, but the benefits flow to the consumer, the children.”
The Mayor said he had written to Williamson in recent days to demand more support for schools but the “digital divide” was still a key issue.
“It breaks my heart when I speak to parents who are telling me that children are using their phone to access lessons,” he said.
Bousted added: “What I see on Twitter, what I see on Facebook, what I see in the right wing press, when you’ve got Julia Hartley Brewer [the TalkRadio host] saying ‘lazy sods’ about teachers, then you just realise how far the teacher bashing has gone.”
She also revealed on the call that teachers were reporting worsening behaviour of pupils.
“When I talk to teachers, they tell me that they are now exhausted. the week before half term they said, it’s like the Christmas level of exhaustion,” she said.
“And I’m hearing some worrying things. One of the things I’m hearing from a lot of people is that pupil behavior is worsening.
“Pupils are coming to school, they are really stressed many of them are experiencing very difficult home lives at the moment with parents who are stressed about work, about unemployment, about money, stressed about the personal relationships at home.
“And then pupils are coming to school and taking out that frustration in school. I’m hearing many stories about pupil behavior worsening.”
She added that some headteachers were adding to staff stress by insisting on performance monitoring.
“I’m hearing some bad stories about some bad practices coming back in: learning walks, lesson observations, accountability practices, which just have no place in a Covid secure school and actually putting people on their knees.”
New figures from the department for education showed that 13% of secondary pupils and 8% of primary pupils were absent last week, down from higher rates before half-term.