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Catching up from Covid with the National Education Union's Dr Mary Bousted

Catching up from Covid with the National Education Union's Dr Mary Bousted

(Image | Alamy)

4 min read

The National Education Union’s Dr Mary Bousted on catching up on children’s lost learning.

Teaching is in Dr Mary Bousted’s blood. Her father was the headteacher of her primary school in Bolton; her mother and three of her seven siblings were teachers too.

As joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), the largest education union in the UK, Bousted, 62, has been criticised by parts of the media and some Conservative MPs during Covid for her interventions over plans to reopen schools. Bousted says the focus on her, rather than other education union chiefs, was down to “the misogyny of the media”.

“One of the reasons why the NEU got so attacked was because the union matters to the members, and the members did not trust the politicians, they trusted their union. Well, I can’t apologise for that,” Bousted says.

Schools are now starting to recover from Covid and get back to normal, she says, but the effects of the pandemic remain. Bousted believes there has not been enough investment in making up lost learning, particularly for deprived children – in England, the government has committed just £300 per pupil spread over three years to catch up.

For Bousted, it is symptomatic of what she sees as chronic underinvestment in the education system. “In age-related terms, we’re failing to invest in our future,” she says.

Bousted is also concerned about an exodus of teachers from the profession – nearly 25 per cent of teachers leave within the first two years, a third within five years and half within 10. Research by the Education Policy Institute shows the probability of teachers leaving has almost doubled since the pandemic began.

“I don’t think teachers mind incredible hard work,” says Bousted. “Teachers are generally people who want to do their best for their pupils and are really prepared to work hard. [But] teachers do mind work which is useless, as so much of the work they are required to do is. It is not work done to improve teaching and learning. It is work done in case the inspector calls.”

Everyone thinks they know a lot about school because they went to school.

Bousted would like teachers to be given more freedom over the way they teach the curriculum, and manage behavioural incidents. Since first becoming head of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in 2003, Bousted has worked with 10 education secretaries and eight schools ministers. “Everyone thinks they know a lot about school because they went to school, but they don’t accept that their knowledge might be particular and circumscribed,” she says.

Bousted describes the government’s approach as “muddle-headed” and trying to “have its cake and eat it, but it doesn’t provide the ingredients”. “Ministers focus on a rigorous academic curriculum with powerful knowledge. I’ve got nothing against powerful knowledge – I’ve got something against who decides what’s powerful, and who doesn’t. It seems to me those are deliberate choices being made, which can exclude very often the work of Black writers, women scientists and so on.

“I accept schools are there for the acquisition of knowledge. But they should be there for much more than that.”

Bousted continues: “[Ministers] sort of remember that we’ve got other issues as a society as well. They sort of remember skills, but they will only talk about skills post-16, not pre-16. They sort of remember civic engagement. But then they get caught up with the woke agenda, so on the one hand, they want young people to talk about climate change, but then they’re much less happy for them to become politically engaged through political education and citizenship in school.”

She disagrees with the suggestion that “wokeism” is being pushed in schools, and says the idea that teachers have the “time or the energy to engage in Tory-bashing in schools” is a fantasy. “We want conversations with all political parties, and we want those conversations to go from the basis of, we won’t always agree – but let’s have the discussion.”

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