The year we gave up on education

The school shutdown was a terrible mistake. It must not be made again.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

Children have been badly let down in this year of Covid. Before 2020, well-meaning campaigners talked about children’s rights or worried about the mental health of young people. This year, all that was forgotten. Coronavirus made it acceptable to keep children at home, isolated from their friends, for months on end. Playgrounds were locked, leisure centres closed, sports and music clubs banned from meeting. It became permissible to suggest dousing children with disinfectant, corralling them into freezing classrooms, and providing them with mashed potato dinners, in bags, to be eaten with their hands.

In 2020, children became a problem to be managed. They were either objects of pity, dependent on the efforts of footballers to prevent imminent starvation, or snotty, infected virus-transmitters, intent on killing the elderly. The mass closure of schools, and the abandonment of education, revealed the lack of collective will to do much more than simply keep children alive. Teaching them, socialising young people into the ways of the world, and preparing them for the future, were all rapidly jettisoned.

The seeds of our response to Covid-19 were sown long before the virus was discovered. It is because education was already held in questionable regard, and schools and universities often struggled to find a sense of purpose, that they could be so readily closed. But we must not forget what an unprecedented move it was to shut schools all across the country, in response to a virus that poses minimal risk to children. In times past, when flu, diphtheria or tuberculosis posed serious threats to young people, there were no national directives ordering the mass closure of schools. Teachers, especially those who worked in deprived neighbourhoods, knew they faced risks to their own health but the importance of educating children and the sense of duty and service that mission engendered, overrode personal concerns.

This year, things could not have been more different. It was largely teachers – and particularly the heads of the teaching unions – who led the clamour for schools to close back in the spring. They then campaigned for schools to remain closed and have since demanded rota systems to limit the time children spend in the classroom. Now many of them are joining the calls to close schools again in January. Something the government hasn’t ruled out.

Of course, some teachers went to huge lengths to provide their pupils with good quality online lessons or worked extremely hard delivering food parcels and stationery to hard-up families. But with schools across the country closed, cancelling exams became inevitable and, for far too many children, this meant that education was entirely abandoned.

One consequence of school closures became apparent almost immediately. Pupils at expensive private schools, and a few notable high-performing state schools, received a full timetable of interactive online lessons. Less fortunate children, meanwhile, were expected to make do with a few emailed home instructions or the odd printed-out worksheet. Educational inequality was readily exposed, and it grew more pronounced with each passing week.

Also revealed was the crucial importance of national exams in motivating teachers and pupils and driving learning. When exams were dropped, many youngsters in their final year of school were left with nothing to do. August’s results-by-algorithm fiasco was all too predictable, as was the government’s u-turn when disappointed students inevitably complained. Falling back on school predictions resulted in huge grade inflation, and few could have been happy with this outcome. Meanwhile, Ofsted seems to have reinvented itself as a child-protection service, more concerned with the plight of children who have ‘disappeared’ from the system than with educational standards. Safeguarding the vulnerable is important, of course, but it should be the job of social workers, not school inspectors.

It is not just children who have learned little this year. Back in March, when much remained unknown about coronavirus, an overreaction could perhaps be forgiven. But most pupils did not step foot in a classroom until September, long after it was known how little risk the virus posed not just to children, but to healthy adults of working age. Back in March, we could only guess at the devastating impact closing schools would have on learning. Now, more evidence is emerging of just how far behind children have fallen. And yet lengthy enforced isolation periods for both teachers and pupils mean schools face huge disruption and continued calls to close.

The legacy of this chaos will play out for many years to come. Scotland and Wales have been cheered on by the teaching unions for pre-emptively cancelling next summer’s exams. Meanwhile, in England, exams might just about go ahead, although pupils will be given extra time to prepare, told the questions in advance, and allowed to take crib sheets in to help them remember the answers. This is not an exam but a performance. But who cares? All will get certificates and, more importantly, no one will be held to account for how little children know.

A decade ago, then education secretary Michael Gove introduced reforms that went some way to raising standards for all pupils, irrespective of geography or parental income. His efforts have been well and truly overturned on Gavin Williamson’s watch. Middle-class parents might find ways to secure advantages for their children through private tuition, or homework supervision, or just books and museum trips. It is, as always, children from already disadvantaged backgrounds who lose out when school standards fall.

The abandonment of education has also been felt in universities this year. Although teaching of sorts continues, it is predominantly online with some first-year students yet to step foot inside a seminar room or lecture theatre. But, just as with schools, too few in higher education are able to make a convincing case for face-to-face teaching, and Jo Grady, head of the University and College Union, seems determined to keep students off campus entirely. Meanwhile, university managers have replaced teaching with policing. Once, consent classes warned students to keep their distance from one another; now this sinister message is backed up by security guards patrolling the campus.

If things are to change for children and young people next year we need to do far more than insist schools stay open and universities deliver – under duress – online teaching to justify charging fees. Instead, we need to argue for education. Not counselling, or safeguarding, or certificate-gathering, or lunch provision – but teachers working out what children should know and how best to pass that knowledge on. Shockingly, it seems that in 2021 we also need to argue that children and young people should be treated with compassion and humanity.

Joanna Williams is currently researching hate crime in her role as director of the Freedom, Democracy and Victimhood Project at the think tank, Civitas.

Picture by: Getty.

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