Opinion with Christine Tongue: What’s so special about keeping schools open?

Christine Tongue is a retired teacher

I never thought I – as a retired teacher – would ever say DON’T SEND YOUR KIDS TO SCHOOL!

I believe in education, I believe in teaching a broad range of subjects and training young minds to ask endless questions, and gain the skills to find their own solutions.

But what we don’t need is schools becoming little factories for the virus to experiment with finding new ways of infecting all of us. It’s happened in Kent – what a feather in our caps to have a variant of a deadly disease named after our county! Or not…

I don’t want to play personal pandemic one-upmanship but here goes.

I missed a lot of school in the polio pandemic in the 1950s. I was in hospital for several months and then for years I had to go for treatment several times a week to the local hospital. Physiotherapy had not long been invented and we crippled (we were called that!) kids were getting the benefit of a free health service and free education – when we could get there.

I was kept home in icy weather or the least sign of any infection, just in case….

I was just seven when I went into hospital and seventeen when they decided I was fit for adult life with no more medical intervention.

I may have missed a lot of time in school but I never missed school itself. I could read, sew, knit, collect unfortunate creatures in the garden and the nearby park, watch unsuitable crime series on tv and knock about with a gang of neighbourhood kids.

I passed my eleven plus, went to university, did post grad research etc etc – free education all through my life and free health care.

What’s that little personal epic got to do with what’s happening now?

Well, first of all, I don’t believe the panic about kids going back to school is to anything to do with concern over their future life chances. Given the right circumstances kids will learn anywhere.

Given the wrong school environment lives can be blighted for ever. I used to teach adults returning to education in a poor part of south London. They had failed in school from poor teaching, or poverty that meant they worked to supplement the family income, look after younger siblings or even parents, or bunked off because nobody really cared if they were in school. When they got to my college they caught up in a year or two – as motivated adults – all the learning they’d lost in their school years.

But I don’t see the government investing in adult education in this way.

It seems to me the “get back to school” mantra – against the advice of the scientists and the teaching unions – is more to do with getting the parents back into work and propping up our weird economy than any concern for the children.

And what about poor children? The ones we hear live in terrible homes, not eating properly if they don’t get their free school dinners and not able to access the online learning the lucky kids with computers and supportive parents are doing?

Shouldn’t they be fed properly and have enough money to be properly equipped for learning anyhow?

Hasn’t it been a revelation that Boris Johnson has at last noticed them? And isn’t it a bit rich that the government is depending on schools to solve the appalling problems of overcrowded housing and poverty?

In affluent families there is no problem about keeping their kids at home.

Most of the cabinet went to expensive boarding schools so how can they understand the problems of poor kids in bad homes? Or of people who have to go to work – regardless of the covid risks – because otherwise they can’t feed their kids.

Before we start worrying about keeping kids home from school because of coronavirus perhaps we need to look at all the unfairness in schools, and in life as it is.

Why aren’t we demanding an end to child poverty, and end to bad housing. And an end to the endless hypocrisy of our rulers!

Christine Tongue is a Broadstairs resident and former Labour Party member. She now does not belong to a political party but does represent disability campaign group Access Thanet


  1. Christine, as you might be aware, I don’t always agree with your views.
    In this instance, I am in total agreement with everything you have written. I too am a retired teacher and also lost a substantial period of my school education, as I was hospitalized for a year with TB.

  2. “It seems to me the “get back to school” mantra – against the advice of the scientists and the teaching unions – is more to do with getting the parents back into work and propping up our weird economy than any concern for the children.”
    100% spot on.

  3. Christine is absolutely right. The new variant {as explained in the Save Our NHS letter to MPs} is more transmissible with children thought to be the super spreaders. Roger Gale appears to agree with keeping schools shut whereas the none too bright Mackinlay is behind the times & removed from the science as usual

  4. The schools will stay open whatever decision is made about the main student population.School sites were open for children of key workers and vulnerable children. Teachers taught on site students and distance learning simultaneously. During lock down I frequently completed 18 hour days planning, marking, phoning to check on vulnerable students.
    When schools opened up my colleuges and I tried to plug the gaps left by gross underfunding of support services for vulnerable families and children. I won’t forget witnessing a hungry 11 year old student cramming food she was given into her mouth.
    Now we have a week to take the place of overburdened NHS staff and test children before they can enter the classroom.

  5. Absolutely Correct! It’s all about getting children off parents hands, so they can return to work and make their bosses richer, which is what true Tories will always want.

  6. Thank you and well said Christine Tongue. I agree with everything you’ve said here completely. It resonates with me too, because I had several years of disrupted schooling and yet I made up for it with 2 years at a wonderful Further Education College in East London and later at the University of Kent.

    Yes, we must keep our teachers and all those who are vulnerable in our communities safe. Our schools are fertile breeding ground for the Covid 19 virus.
    I note that the two Conservative Thanet MPs are saying and doing nothing about closing schools to keep our community safe. Shame on both Roger Gale and Craig Mackinlay. If neither of you cannot and will not speak up for the vulnerable in our society what is your purpose?

  7. The mantra of keeping schools open, come what may, is political dogma and needs to be challenged. During the Summer, infection rates were low and under control. They began to rise a week after the schools went back, in September, and have risen inexorably since then. The politicians do not argue that children can’t catch or spread the disease. They just argue that the impact of spreading can be traded off by closing down hospitality venues and confining people to their homes. Clearly, this hasn’t worked. Now, we have the “new variant” to contend with. We are asked to believe that the decision to cancel Christmas and impose rigorous tiered controls was driven by the rapid spread of this variant. Tier 4 controls were barely adequate for reducing the ‘R’ rate before the discovery of this variant. It’s hard to see how they will be adequate if the virus is now more transmissible and schools are sent back to act as breeding grounds for infection.

  8. Agreed..and to add, I dont doubt the schools will strive to keep the kids safe, but I live by the main bus stops where 2 senior schools pupils converge, twice daily. Having left their respective schools, they are forced (time constraints) to scuttle along narrow pavements from schools to bus stops. They cant possibly ‘socially distance’..and 100 or more of all year groups are forced together at the stops, else they’d block the footpath and main road Seeing them board the buses, again they are squashed together..for up to 45 mins….It is a ludicrous situation and should not be even considered until there is widespread vaccination available..even then , many ,like me, who are unable to have the vaccination will need to be careful

  9. I wonder how many of your class, Christine, “Passed 11 plus”? How many failed deliberately to duck out of the system? And how many would have passed if they had not wasted their time going to school?

    Those who attended school, tried their best and failed ? When they and/or their peers attended adult education as motivated adults .. and you jolly soon had them catch up on their learning? Was this to pass standard 11 plus or fail standard?

    The poor parents you decry? Are these products of state education? What of their parents? And their parents’ parents etc back to mid 19th century creation of state education (Which signalled the start of the decay of UK technological pre-eminence).

    • My students were up to A level standard by the end of their course and many went on to the local university or job training. As a teaching experience it was amazingly fulfilling. I’m sorry I didn’t understand the rest of what you said. Maybe that’s what I missed in school…..

      • Christine. These folk failed by the education system (According to you) could achieve A level standard in two years ? Is this evidenced by A level passes?

        When we took on Napoleon we had one constable to about 13,000 citizens. In 1819 the Unlawful Drilling Act was enacted. Round about that time we abandoned compulsory apprenticeships. Next we invented state policing. They did duties like enforcing separation of married couples in workhouses. Stopping the undeserving poor from breeding. Then along came someone who thought state education would be a good idea. To produce good citizens.

        And so successful was state education we now have one constable for every 400 citizens. Within 3 decades of state education in UK we had been overtaken technologically and agriculturally by Germany. And by WW1 we were obsolete technically by world standards.

        After WW2 Professor R V Jones warned that an effete postwar education system would put the nail in UK coffin. He was right.

        My late dad joined up 1941. Royal Navy. He told me a story about when between 39 and 41 he was a volunteer doing sandbagging he and former school mates were told the ….. brothers had signed up And in a strange moment without irony the lads felt sorry for the German soldiers At school those ….. brothers used to walk into woodwork or metalwork classrooms demanding to be taught something useful. The woodwork teacher would attack them with a lump of four by two. Blows across their shoulders bounced off them but caused them some hilarity. They refused to be forced into history, divinity etc lessons and would walk out to train and box and wrestle in the park. “They was born hard” said dad “Never bullied anyone, never hit a teacher”

        The older boys got to know the Card family who had a car which self taught mechanic Granddad kept roadworthy. “What’s that then mister how’s that work”.

        During the war grandma got into blackmarket as she opposed the starving for England burden falling only on the working class. While the older boys were away fighting Grandma fed the ailing parents and younger children of that family. At the end of the war every Christmas a Friends Diary was sent to Grandma and that continued till her death aged 97.

        The brothers survived the war .. they had become SAS and Commando. When they joined up they knew a bit about woodwork, metalwork, engines, building, wrestling, boxing, guns and poaching … but not a whole heap about divinity or literature or daily acts of worship.

        People resisted the social control agenda of both state education and state policing.

        What other holy trampolines do you unquestioningly bounce off? The unlawful multicultural experiment? The NHS?

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