The ongoing debate around reopening schools hit the headlines in the past weeks, with the Daily Mail taking aim at education unions, imploring
them to drop their opposition and “Let our teachers be heroes”. Teachers then are the latest group dragged into the rhetoric of heroism.
This language pervades lockdown Britain. Nurses are heroes, essential workers are heroes, Captain Tom is a hero. Now, the Mail has declared, teachers are being held back from a glorious charge into the valley of heroism by the pesky NEU and its ilk, who’ve demanded that teachers only return when the right safety measures are put in place. Do teachers want to be heroes? One poll by the NASUWT of its members found that only 5% thought it was safe to return. Do they have to be? Since the Mail’s headline, the unions’ resistance to the 1st of June reopening date has been joined by councils like Liverpool. The plan conspicuously only covers schools in England. State schools that is. Eton will not reopen until September. If those paying for the UK’s most expensive education think now isn’t the right time for their children and their children’s teachers to return, let’s spare a thought for schools without Eton’s resources.
The label of heroism is a mixed bag. Frontline workers are currently experiencing admiration from the rest of society in return for severe risks they have little choice in facing. If unions and councils are already sceptical about the government’s ability to guarantee teachers’ safety, implying that a return to work comes with heroic dangers doesn’t help. For many, working during lockdown has come with the serious risk of catching a life-threatening illness. As of 20th May 2020, this illness had already taken the lives of 312 NHS workers, as well as many other people, from cleaners to bus drivers, whose labour has been classed as essential during the crisis. Just months ago, many of these jobs were classed as ‘unskilled’. Now that it’s apparent that such jobs are all that’s kept the UK functioning, they’ve become ‘essential’. It would be hoped that this would alter the perspective of those in power when it comes to these undervalued jobs. All signs instead point to returning frontline workers, lauded as heroes for now, to the category of unskilled. Many of these workers would not meet the £25,600 salary threshold the government’s new immigration bill proposes, part of a points-based system they claim will lead to a ‘high-skill’ economy. In the NHS alone, 13.1% workers identify as a nationality other than British. Today they and thousands of other workers born abroad are applauded at 8pm on Thursdays. Soon enough many of them could be thrown under the bus.
There isn’t simply a gulf between heroic rhetoric and a hero’s reward when it comes to government policy, there is the opposite of rewards. There is no guarantee of any significant pay rise for frontline workers. Claps cost nothing, but meaningful improvements to their quality of life do. The economic cost of COVID-19 will likely raise familiar questions around public spending. Like the financial crisis before it, the proposed recovery will be painful and unpopular, and the rhetoric surrounding it will be one of inevitability. Yet as other countries such as Germany and New Zealand have shown, nothing surrounding COVID-19 was inevitable. The British government could have acted sooner, especially in regards to testing, but so far the narrative of COVID-19 has not been one of negligence on their part. It has focused instead on the bravery of the victims of the government’s failures, romanticised as heroes struggling against an apolitical force of nature. Heroism is a useful tool when it comes to directing focus from those responsible for a crisis onto those having to face it. There has been a reluctance to look behind the curtain when it comes to why teachers would have to be heroes just to do their jobs. In fact, such questions directly aimed at the government’s handling of the crisis have been met with accusations of negativity and political point-scoring, as if coronavirus and political opportunists are on one side of a war, and the heroes and the nation (read government) are on the other.
History demonstrates how quickly heroes become scapegoats in this country. The firefighters at Grenfell tower, the survivors at Hillsborough, the Windrush generation who helped rebuild postwar Britain. In 1918, then PM David Lloyd George promised returning veterans of WW1 “a land fit for heroes”. What most of them got were the same poor conditions of that era, with mass unemployment, a great depression, and then a second world war for their children. The veterans of that second war, Captain Tom’s comrades, have been disproportionately at risk in care homes which have seen the greatest increase in deaths since the start of the outbreak. It seems apparent that in the context of national crisis, a ‘hero’ is used first as a sacrifice and second as a patriotic distraction for the perpetrators. In the aftermath, there is no guarantee of justice or support. Maybe we should be questioning why these people had to be heroes, before we create more.
Photo: Luke Jones//Unsplash