OPINION: Hard times are still with us all - former Harrogate headteacher Dennis Richards

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... the spring of hope... the winter of despair.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 3rd March 2022, 2:33 pm
27th February 2021
A sign of Spring as the Crocus are in full bloom on The Stray in Harrogate
Picture Gerard Binks
27th February 2021 A sign of Spring as the Crocus are in full bloom on The Stray in Harrogate Picture Gerard Binks

Charles Dickens’ opening words in a Tale of Two Cities, so apt for today’s 18 year olds. I expected to be writing about our schools returning after half-term, with a renewed sense of optimism, that a pandemic which has brought such trauma to our schools, may be moving towards some sort of closure.

The first glimpse of crocuses on the Stray, and students doing ‘mock’ exams, in the traditional way. Hoping that this year, their results won’t count for all that much. At least that’s what my nephew believes. He says optimistically, that “he doesn’t want to peak too early.” Yeah right.

Instead of which, schools find themselves having to confront the reality of a war in Europe. Grandparents can remember the dramatic moment in 1962 when Kennedy and Khrushchev ‘faced off’ over the issue, of Russian missiles on the island of Cuba. It was a terrifying week at the time. We already know that some children will be traumatised.

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In the schools which returned after half-term last week, several have reported that it has not been easy. Vulnerable children, already in some mental turmoil because of Covid, are genuinely distressed by what they see daily on television.

Others, however, are so used to online games, often based on sanitised violence, that they’re almost thinking of the whole thing as a game, with no concept of war’s reality.

Meanwhile school leaders are adjusting to a new Secretary of Education, Nadhim Zahawi. He is the 17th Minister to hold that role during my years as a headteacher and in my current role as a school governor. My personal favourite was Estelle Morris, maybe because she appointed me to an advisory role for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in London. It was abolished not long after my appointment, but I like to think that the two events were unconnected. Estelle Morris was an unusual appointment to the role, in that she had once been a teacher herself. And it showed.

Mr Zahawi has been very sure from the start that exams must go ahead pretty much as usual this year, a stance, which the vast majority of heads and teachers support. Credit given, where credit due.

His unnecessary decision to issue guidance to schools about political impartiality, however, runs the risk of putting him on a collision course, not so much with teachers, but with the nation’s sixth formers.

Many of whom are voters, of course. History and Politics teachers are on their guard at times like this. It’s what they are trained for. Like most of his predecessors, Mr Zahawi has never been a teacher. And it shows.

In 2003, I suddenly noticed, that the sixth form canteen was very empty. Not till Her Majesty’s Constabulary informed me, that the sixth form were marching through the town, was I fully aware of how deeply they felt about Iraq.

We’ve seen the same in relation to climate change. Young people do not take kindly to being patronised.

If he wants to get the teachers and students ‘onside’, I suggest that he seriously considers a review of OFSTED reports, which are looking increasingly erratic. How about this? “This school ‘Requires Improvement’.

It is a good school in every respect, apart from the quality of its education”. What? How on earth were my rugby friends in Wigan supposed to make sense of that assessment of the town’s Atherton High School?

Dickens has the last word. “It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.” Quite.