Express FM: Interview with Amanda Martin on Re-opening Schools

Every week, Express FM runs a live show dedicated to news about the Coronavirus in Portsmouth, as Robbie James interviews a range of local people, including politicians, experts, residents and businesses. On 6th May, Robbie spoke to Amanda Martin, President of the National Education Union, about how schools are managing in lockdown and when it might be safe for children to return to school. Transcribing by Peta Sampson.

RJ: We start this evening by chatting to our first guest, Amanda Martin, President of the National Education Union. We had you on our first Coronavirus special back in March. I remember it was a time of much uncertainty for all of us and much uncertainty for our schools. Are things feeling more settled, in terms of schools and teachers?

I think that we have gone through a phase of feeling more settled.

I’m proud of my union helping to fill in the gaps, because we were [told] ‘schools are closed’ and then the information came out in dribs and drabs. So, we did enter a phase of reaction, and finding the best way to keep vulnerable pupils and key-worker kids in schools and colleges. We seem to have sorted that with platforms for children’s learning, some schools photocopying and sending information out, and free school meals vouchers eventually coming through.

There have been some difficulties [and] many teething problems and it seemed to be we were on a level-playing field. [But] then in the media [recently, we’ve seen] comments [about] reopening schools, which has caused us huge amounts of concern. We launched a petition last week and, as of today [6th May] 390,000 plus people have signed that to say we cannot think about reopening schools until it’s safe to do so, until the public has confidence in that decision.

What [have we] heard from the government about reopening schools in the near future?

The government has come out and said, categorically, that we won’t reopen schools until it is safe to do so.

Our fear is that they closed schools with very little notice [and] we don’t want to have [to re-]open schools with very little notice. The NEU are calling for five tests to be completed because we want information and evidence to give us confidence if and when we are due to open.

So, as far as students and parents go, they should assume that teaching is going to go on in the same manner that has been for the last few weeks?

Yes, absolutely, until we hear something concrete from the government, they should absolutely assume that. If they have a fear, they should look at signing petitions, having conversations with [their] local MPs and dispelling any myths about that. But they should assume until we hear from the government that we are re-opening to more pupils – because remember that we have been open the entire time – that that is going to be continuing as it is.

As you mention, all schools are open but there’s only a certain amount of pupils that are attending schools at the moment. From your experience, how are those schools operating in terms of keeping social distancing and managing to keep some form of structure, if teachers are then having to self isolate? How is that working so far?

Well, I think the profession has done an amazing job. We put in immediately staff rotas, which mean unless you are in contact with the pupils you shouldn’t be in school, you should be working from home. There’s plenty to do from home with regards to lessons and things that [usually] go on in school. Rotas [and] curriculums have been put in place, and uploaded online for our pupils to be doing. I know phone calls are being done to check on pupils to make sure that they’re okay, [and] if there’s anything [more] the school can be doing.

It’s not an ideal situation, we miss our kids as much as they miss being in school and college as well, but I think that we have done a really good job. Anyone who has concerns as a parent, let your school know if there’s an issue and we can help you solve that.

How are schools dealing with communication? Is it a blanket approach at the moment to how schools communicate with their pupils and with parents, or is it each school taking a different situation itself?

I think that there can never be a blanket approach in education, that’s part of the problem we are in. I think that always, schools, teachers, teaching assistants, school staff, [and] school leaders know their community. They know what their communities need, they know what individual families need.

We have a set of rotas [for] how we get information out to pupils and to check on their wellbeing, but every school is operating individually. I know of some schools that are printing the free school meals vouchers, for example, for parents and delivering those, and other schools are giving support [on] how you download and do that yourself. I know of some schools delivering packs of papers with pencils and colouring equipment to homes, and I know of schools that are delivering online [or both].

My own school do on Twitter a nightly story to our pupils, where a member of staff reads out the story. It’s trying to make our pupils feel a part of the school community still.

That’s an interesting one, you mention on Twitter there, so you can have the pupils interacting with on social media with their school?

My school, yes, we’ve had pupil interaction for a long time on Twitter, where we put competitions on and we’ve got kids to feed into that. People are doing various things. I know that there have been videos put up on social media of staff singing in their own house and cutting to other staff members’ houses.

What we have to realise [is] that during this time, the experience of every pupil in schools and colleges is very different. Some of our kids are going to massively blossom during this time, having maybe two parents at home. Other kids, their parents are going to be working and they [may be] relying on one parent to stay at home because they are fearful of sending them in even if they are key workers, and they are going to be struggling. Others will struggle with no outdoor space. We’ve got over a million kids in the country with no access to wifi or devices to work off of. If parents are concerned then please, phone and email into your school and leave a message and someone will get back to you and have a conversation as to how we can support.

We go into this job, as educators, because we love the kids that we teach and I think that doesn’t change in this crisis. In fact, that just gets heightened more and more. I think when we come out of this, [with] everybody fully in school, [we want] our school community to be the loving communities they were before this, and to make sure our pupils have had the best possible education. Because when we come back, we can’t expect kids to sit in rows and do SATs testing, we’ve got to be looking at their mental and physical wellbeing and give them time to explore the creative curriculums that we’re using more and more of during this time.

When we do move on from this, how much change [do you think] we’ll see in education, the way things are taught, and communication between pupils and teachers? Is it something we are going to see change in the not too distant future?

I think that we will see change, I think that we have to realise that you cannot replace face-to-face contact with pupils.

I know there’s parents out there that are really struggling [and] finding it difficult because they aren’t trained to be teachers, or teaching assistants or support assistants. They are all doing their very best because they love their kids and they want to keep [them] safe and to protect the NHS, but education absolutely has to change after this.

We cannot go back to where we were at [before]. We need to make sure kids have an holistic education, which means an all-round education. [This] is very much what’s going on right now when we are looking at the contact with our individual pupils. It has to change, we can’t go back to standardised testing of SATs, we can’t have baselines, we can’t have league tables, we’ve got to look at what our communities need in education.

We can see that [in] the GCSEs whereby we’ve gone to teacher assessment, because at the moment most GCSEs are 100 percent exams. If we didn’t have 100 percent exams those pupils would know where they were at as they were working through their coursework, so I think we have to make some dramatic changes, but for the better.

Amanda, thank you for chatting to us this evening, and we want to send our love and gratitude to all the teachers working out there at the moment.

And I echo that: to all the school staff and college staff but also for all of the parents that are being patient, [and] aren’t trained to do this job but are doing it, because they know they’ve got to keep everybody safe.


This article was transcribed from Express FM’s weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, 6th May 2020, and has been edited for clarity and length.

Listen to the full interview over at Express FM’s website, and subscribe to the weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, or listen live every Wednesday, 6pm-7pm. To find out more about Express FM, head over to the website, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And of course, listen live every day on your radio at 93.7FM or via the website.

Find out more about the National Education Union on their website, Facebook and Twitter.

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