Despite conflicting medical evidence and signs of a Covid ‘second spike’ – Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are desperate to send all children back to school this week. But except for photo opportunities, the Tories are not interested in schools or learning – education had been given little attention since Johnson became PM and a rehabilitated ‘no no’ minister put in charge. It had even less profile under Teresa May. Johnson and Cummings main concern is, as always, rebuilding economic activity and halting further increases in national debt.
Sending children back to school will, they hope, free parents to go back to work and enable the knock-on effects of this – everything from restarting expensive commuting (transport networks are losing millions) to preventing the collapse of the ‘Pret-economy’ in city centres. Do not underestimate either, the additional household spending associated with returning to school – a fortune having to be spent new uniforms sports kit and various other equipment – not to mention all the junk food kids buy from local shops on their journey there and back.
Ironically the Tories most important allies in the push to reopen schools have been the Labour Party leadership ( who’s opposition has concentrated on logistics and timings) and the array of public bodies, centre-left think tanks and research institutes armed with statistics about the learning time lost and how the attainment gap between the privileged, the disadvantaged and state and private schools has widened.
Even if its accepted that getting all children back to school in one week, can never really be safe, it’s agreed almost without exception, that future economic performance is jeopardised if its future workforce is away from the classroom for long periods and that schools and colleges are the main avenues of social mobility. Neither of these have ever really been true and are even less so now. In the 21st century with the growth in high skilled jobs far less than the number of people with the qualifications to do them, for many the only social mobility can only be downwards. If employers do need schools and colleges to develop specific skills, they want them to be ‘generic’ – certainly not the remembering, cramming and regurgitation of bits of ‘exam knowledge’. Little has been said about the opening of university campuses or FE colleges, institutions that have more direct links to labour market recruitment.
Of course we should be worried about growing gaps in attainment, but the reality is that if the majority of the Covid generation are to stand any real chance of becoming economically secure, then rather than just piling up educational qualifications, wider economic policies providing proper futures are required. Rather than learning being a social activity, done with peers, the desperate pursuit of top grades now means young people effectively compete against each other to access declining opportunities. But like with all competitions, not everybody can win. Like in any race, those well behind rarely catch up those with a head start.
During the lock-down there have been huge opportunities to discuss how to ‘build back better’ – with opinion polls showing a majority not wanting a return to the ‘old normal’: but there has been little of this sort of discussion in education. The exam fiasco provided an excellent opportunity to restore the importance of teacher assessment and as a result, start to promote a different curriculum and alternative pedagogy – but education’s leaders walked into a cul-de sac over concerns about ‘grade inflation’. All Labour can do is argue that next years exams should be delayed a few weeks to allow more time to cover the syllabus and these days, teacher unions offer little in the way of alternatives.
But being critical of the way in which education has now become a huge sorting machine for the labour market and recognising that for thousands of students school learning has become a tedious, an exhausting and a demoralising affair, doesn’t stop us understanding the important role that schools play in providing social contact and emotional well-being. We do not want young people sitting at home, dependent on Zoom – looking at screens all day. We do want young people to re-establish relationships with their teachers and their school friends. As public buildings, schools should be open, but not in the old ways. Running them on nineteen century ‘factory’ principles, with large numbers of students following inflexible timetables, cramming themselves into inadequate buildings which then remain closed for over 150 days a year is inappropriate, not just for a prolonged and increasingly unpredictable virus crisis, but also for the 21st century.
For very young children less adaptable and less vulnerable to covid, full-time schooling in the classroom may be the only way: but for older children, backed by a different vision of learning, a hybrid model, with home-based learning organised through a local authority along with part-time attendance at school is the best way forward. To take pressure off overcrowded schools and to allow proper social distancing, other buildings could also be used as smaller and more personalised ‘learning centres’ for those not able to work at home, or without the equipment to be able to do so. Just as many people have changed the way they work and want to keep at least part of these practices, changing the way schools operate could really re-motivate young people. All of these need prior planning however and with winter around the corner, it’s more likely that ‘normal’ schooling will struggle on, but in abnormal conditions, with local lock downs continuing to interrupt.