The return to school in France and Britain: The price that children are paying for the capitalist pandemic

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We are publishing an article written by our comrades in France which shows that the bourgeoisie’s negligent and irresponsible response to the Covid-19 pandemic is not limited to populist government’s like those in Britain and the US. It is followed by an article that highlights the similarity of government action on both sides of the Channel. This article was written by a sympathiser but is fully in line with our position on this question.

France

According to the official figures, which are systematically underestimated by states[1], despite the isolation of nearly half of the world, Covid-19 has become the third most deadly global disease today in the number of daily deaths[2]. In France, between March 16 and May 3, there was a 39% increase in excess deaths at the national level[3] and close to 180% over two months in certain communes of the Department of Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest in metropolitan France[4]. With a virus as dangerous as this still circulating within a population not immunised against it[5], without any vaccine or remedy being found and a health system on its knees, it is evident that all premature raising of the tardy precautionary health measures introduced by the state can have serious consequences for a great part of the population, notably among the working class.

"Capital that has such good reasons for denying the sufferings of the legions of workers that surround it, is in practice moved as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun. In every stockjobbing swindle every one knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Après moi le déluge! [After me, the flood] is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits?"[6]

Thus, encouraged by certain flatterers of capital openly declaring that the country couldn't "sacrifice the young and active in order to save the old"[7] , so as to get the maximum of workers back on the job, the French government therefore reopened crèches and primary schools on May 11 under the hypocritical pretext of wanting to reduce the gap in teaching coming from isolation and a growing number of pupils in difficulties. But the priority given to the youngest, notably to "children of essential workers for the management of the health crisis and the continuity of the life of the nation" as well as for the children of workers who can't work from home, fools no-one.

In order to keep up illusions, teachers are told to follow an inapplicable health protocol of 63 pages laid out by the Minister for National Education, made impossible by the typical bureaucratic absurdity of its recommendations, which can’t be kept to when you’re dealing with such young children. And all that, of course, without taking into account the age-old shortages of masks and other protective equipment. In such conditions, despite all the efforts of the adults looking after them, the school becomes a sort of dangerous and traumatising "day-care prison" where children feel themselves deprived of physical contact, fearful of infection -  as happened in the Tourcoing infant's school in Belgium where the virus spread rapidly -  and having to deal with physical distancing marked on the ground, showing the ludicrous and dehumanising side of the situation.[8]

But there is one point that the government has been clear about and that's the surveillance of any critical expression tending to denounce the criminal negligence of the bourgeois state and its responsibility in the advance of the present health crisis. Thus, in a particularly explicit manner, the Minister for Education has put some "educational" sheets on-line for teachers that read as follows: "the Covid-19 crisis could be used by some in order to show the incapacity of the state to protect the population and try to destabilise fragile individuals. Various radical groups (could) exploit this dramatic situation with the aim of rallying new members to their cause and trouble public order". Also, if "children say something manifestly unacceptable (...). The reference to state authority for the protection of each citizen must then be evoked, without going into polemical discussion. Parents will be alerted and met by the teacher, accompanied by a colleague and the situation reported to the school authorities"[9]. Clearly, young children are being used by the state to identify and intimidate parents who dare to question governmental action. This procedure, which reminds one among other things of the practices of Fascist or Stalinist regimes, is further evidence of totalitarian character of the democratic bourgeoisie in the epoch of the decadence of capitalism[10].

This present situation comes from the fact that, for French capital, as for others nations, the rapid return to work is an economic imperative compared to which the physical and mental health of the workers and their families, children included, doesn’t have much weight.

DM, May 24, 2020

Britain

During the continuing uncertainties over the development of the Covid-19 pandemic the general weight among parents of schoolchildren, particularly those of the working class, has been not to trust the government and to make their own decisions about their children going to school or back to school. Thus of the million school places given to vulnerable children and those of "essential workers" only 5% have taken them up. The British government's "back to school" line, alongside its "back to work" line, has been supported by the Labour Party with two of its former education secretaries - David Blunkett and Alan Johnson - weighing in to blame the teachers for being wary about the conditions awaiting them and the children on the return. The trade unions that were pushing for a quick return (the teachers are divided by a number of unions, "militant" or "moderate" and all part of the state) have been rebuffed by both concerned teachers and parents.

The return to school (return to work) plan of the state has been as chaotic, incompetent, contradictory, negligent and mendacious as all the other aspects of its handling of this pandemic from the beginning. One plan was for "Nightingale" schools, purpose-built and tutored by volunteers, "coaches", retired teachers, etc.  The idea was as empty and useless as the "Nightingale" hospitals turned out to be with the prospect of many children alone with tutors they did not know and who weren't checked for working with children. Such "disclosure" checks before the Covid-19 pandemic were taking over three months to come through so, given the present chaos in the Department of Education, this "good" idea was quietly dropped. Another idea has been "bubbles" in schools which, as the name implies, seem to mean anything to anybody. The Welsh government has helpfully come up with a booklet for teachers with the rules for schools re-opening in August: it is 53 pages long, with further references and impossible to follow. The "devolved" governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all played the role of a "more caring" opposition to Whitehall while following precisely the same policies.

The "actively encouraged" (to quote the British Prime Minister) June 1st return to school collapsed into another farce as teachers refused to work and most parents backed them. Schools in Britain closed on March 20 this year and an estimated 2 million children, one in five, have done little or no school work since the lockdown (Guardian, 19.6.2020). Despite this the risks still weigh heavily on parents, particularly when necessary supports like the "world-beating test and trace" system, supposedly up and running on June 1st has now put back to sometime into the future, and the "breakthrough" app accompanying it has broken. It's the same old stories with promised (promised April 19) lap-tops still not turning up in schools (about 50% have arrived so far) and "real progress" (Prime Minister, June 19) being made on testing and tracing. It is no wonder that very few parents, particularly working class parents, have any faith in the words of the state and its "statesmen" and have voted with their feet. Another concern for parents, and particularly working class parents who have done wonders in looking after their children, is what type of school our children are going back to - regulated prisons for infants?

Now the campaign is on to get children back to school proper and the main drive behind it is the need for the British state, like all states, to get the economy going and profits generated. It comes on top of many concerns being generated by the state and its politicians about the "well-being" and "adverse mental health" of young children; these concerns are pure hypocrisy[11]. For decades now both Labour and Conservative governments have been attacking all the living and working conditions of the working class and this obviously affects its children: "Over the last five years, child poverty has risen in every London borough (because of) high housing, child-care and living costs, as well as low-pay. 72% of children in poverty are in working households". Footballer Marcus Rashford's dignified intervention on behalf of working class children showed the contempt of the government for the issue. As for the "U-turn" on school meals, what it means is that for a further brief period, with the usual bureaucratic delays, some children's families will receive vouchers of a pittance. And those children receiving a daily school meal find their quality has been affected by years of cuts and the bulk of which is unwholesome carbohydrates.  Public Health England (PHE) has refused to comment on the nutritional value of school meals, saying it's a decision "for ministers to take". Professor of food policy at London's city university, Tim Lang, described this as "the leave-it-to-Tesco's approach" (Observer, 21.6.2020).

The "concern" of the ruling class for the well-being of working class children is limited to its concern that its wage slaves get back to work as soon as possible; sacrifices are demanded and will be demanded by the state in order to keep its moribund system going, and working class children are part of that. We look in horror and disgust at the ritual sacrifices of children in certain civilisations such as the Aztecs for example. But, as this Covid-19 pandemic has shown, as its whole history shows, the capitalist state demands sacrifices of the old, the weak and vulnerable and that includes our children and their future.

Baboon 24.6.2020

 

[6]  Karl Marx, Capital, Book One, Third section, Chapter X, V. "The struggle for a normal working day. Compulsory Laws for the extension of the working day from the middle of the 14th to the end of the 17th century".

[7]  Regarding this proposal made by the essayist Emmanuel Todd, Le Canard enchainé of May 6, indicated that variations on this same theme came from journalists Jean Quiatremer (Libération) and Christophe Barbier (L'Éxpress). Similar expressions have been made by journalists in Britain and even from within high levels of the NHS.

[10]  On this subject see our article "How the bourgeoisie is organised: The lie of the ‘democratic’ state” International Review no. 76. https://en.internationalism.org/content/3588/bourgeois-organization-lie-democratic-state

[11]  It is a widespread idea that the government is doing the best it can in difficult circumstances. This democratic illusion is shattered by the whole history of the capitalist exploitation, commodification and abuse of working class and oppressed children. Just after World War II, thousands of British children, mostly orphans, were deported to various ex-colonies in order to get rid a liability and populate these areas for British interests. The lives of these children were basically slavery and physical and sexual abuse. The cover-up of an enquiry into this scandal was expressed by Lord John Hope, under-secretary of state for the Commonwealth: "... you can rely on us... we will pick out the good bits (in the report into the event).... I shall not be the least critical in Parliament".  Sir Colin Anderson, "benefactor", who was involved in the report and pleaded for it not to be published, financially benefited from the "trade" through the children shipped on his Orient Line. The money to pay for the fares for the deported children was raised primarily through charitable donations collected in schools, Sunday schools and working class areas.

Rubric: 

Covid-19