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Schools are still reeling from lockdown

Shutting down schools for months on end revealed just how low a priority education has become.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics UK

Parents, remember this time three years ago? In England, we just had been locked down for Christmas, waiting with clenched teeth for the start of the next school term, only for the school gates to be slammed shut for a further two months. Our kids were condemned to another run of aimless, formless days, tended to by the cold ministrations of Google classroom.

By the time the kids limped back to school on 8 March 2021, they seemed to spend more time wiping down furniture than learning about history or science. Public exams had already been cancelled for the second year running. The only test that mattered was the stick-up-the-nose kind. A positive result could land them and all their friends back at home for another 10 days.

It was madness that this went on for so long. Madder still is that, three years on, Britain is still struggling to get education back on track. Things are bad enough for children attending school, desperately struggling to make up for those 18 months’ worth of ‘learning loss’. But the problem is even more acute for the so-called ghost children.

Towards the end of the pandemic, it came to light that, in autumn 2021, one in four children were persistently absent from school, compared with one in nine in the 2018-2019 school year. Then, in September 2022, it was reported that 93,000 kids had ‘simply vanished and fallen off school registers’ since the pandemic began, hence the term ‘ghost children’. It has taken another year for any real fuss to be made about this problem. Predictably it’s all too little, too late.

This week, the UK government came out with a plan to get kids back into school. It effectively amounts to a new marketing campaign, with the slogan ‘Moments matter, attendance counts’. The government claims that ‘more than one million children and young people will be supported into regular education via dedicated ‘attendance hubs’ and ‘the attendance-mentor pilot programme’.

It’s classic boilerplate bullshit. The government press release goes on to sing the praises of the English school system, claiming that ‘Being in school has never been more valuable with standards continuing to rise… Just this month, England was ranked 11th in the world for maths, up from 27th in 2009, and in May, England was named “best in the West” for primary reading.’ All of which begs the question: if England’s schools are so great, why aren’t the kids going?

For its part, the Labour Party vowed this week that it would crack down on parents taking their kids out of school for holiday trips. No doubt there will be harsh financial penalties attached for wayward parents. After all, it was New Labour that introduced the practice of fining and prosecuting parents for pupil non-attendance back in 2003. And this is a practice that has been eagerly continued by the current Tory government, which reminded parents in May 2023 that ‘fines for school absences start at £60, rising to £120 if you fail to pay within 21 days. Some councils charge this fine per child, while others fine each parent for each child.’ Even the dreaded ULEZ charge limits itself to one fine per car.

This pathetic, technocratic response to the post-Covid school-attendance crisis shouldn’t surprise us. It is precisely this technocratic approach to education that led to schools being closed for so long in the first place. For decades, policymakers have shown themselves incapable of understanding the importance of education to a civilised, functioning society. Instead, they have focussed on what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott described as the ‘extrinsic’ purposes of education – namely, equipping young people with skills for jobs and life, bringing about ‘social inclusion’ (ie, reducing crime) and meeting the direct and present needs of the economy.

This instrumental message about why school matters is transmitted directly to parents and children. As the Department for Education’s ‘Education Hub’ blog put it in September 2023: ‘Being in school is important to your child’s academic achievement, wellbeing and wider development… Attendance at school is crucial to prepare young people for successful transition to adulthood and to support their longer-term economic and social participation in society.’

Hardly inspiring, is it? In this context, it’s no wonder that the government’s ‘Moments matter’ campaign has been greeted with hollow laughter from many parents. The idea that children’s lives will be irreparably damaged by a few days out of school to see grandparents abroad just doesn’t ring true. Not least when the same government so recently confined kids to their bedrooms for months on end. The hypocrisy is enough to incite even the most swotty of families to think little of playing hooky on the Costa del Sol.

When Conservative MP Miriam Cates argues that ‘lockdown broke the social contract between schools, parents and teachers’, she is only partly right. In truth, this social contract was already at breaking point before lockdown. The case that was being made for education was entirely hollow and instrumental. Absenteeism was treated as if it were a parking infraction.

Many children don’t like school. And many parents bristle at the bossiness of school rules and the nonsense that their children are sometimes taught. Few teachers are perfect and many more are exhausted and demoralised. Yet for all that, schools remain crucial places in which children learn about the world and work out their place in it. As we experienced so acutely during the pandemic, even a bad school is better than no school at all. And when society throws up its hands and says it doesn’t care whether children are being educated or not, we lose our moral bearings completely.

We seem to have forgotten that education is about more than the job market. It’s supposed to give meaning to our children’s existence. It is how we show them that they inhabit a society that is bigger than themselves, that they are heirs to generations of knowledge and wisdom, and that they have the responsibility to apply that knowledge in their own lives.

Tragically, lockdown revealed that the government and the education establishment just doesn’t care that much about that deeper, more fundamental purpose of education. Restoring the social contract between kids, parents and teachers is going to take a lot of hard work.

Jennie Bristow is a reader in sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University and co-author of Parenting Culture Studies, the second edition of which has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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