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EDUCATION AFTER COVID

On May 12th, Reclaiming Education held the first of a number of webinars designed to examine the impact of the pandemic upon schools and to consider what needs to be done as the country recovers.

The speakers were Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary of the National Education Union; David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, and Carolyn Roberts, Head Teacher of Thomas Tallis School, Greenwich.

Mary Bousted began by saying that the pandemic had made more visible the “cracks” within the education system – especially the effects of poverty and inequality.  This had been very obvious in the inability of many children effectively to access remote learning.  She felt that a review of the provision of remote learning was now urgent, if only to ensure that all pupils have equal access to it.  

More generally, the amount of money needed to correct the damage done by the pandemic – estimated at £13.5bn over three years – was vastly more than the amount set aside by the government: a mere £250.00 per pupil.  As a comparison, the USA has set aside £1.5k per pupil – six times as much.  Dr Bousted believes that the paltry amount set aside by the UK government reflects the low standing in which the DFE is held by the Treasury.

The effects of poverty and inequality, however, although aggravated and made more obvious by the pandemic, were not caused by it.  Research published in 2016 clearly showed that 40% of the attainment gap between the poorest and most affluent children was already established before children even started school.  This is a situation which has steadily worsened through the years of “austerity” and now almost a third of children live below the poverty line.  Government must greatly increase the amount of money set aside for the needs of disadvantaged children.

The latest Queen's Speech had been very disappointing, with little to say about education and what was said having a misplaced focus upon “catching up”, rather than upon the well-being of children.  Children suffering from conditions such anxiety were likely to find themselves on a waiting list for therapy of at least 8 months, while the ability of schools to support such children has been destroyed by “austerity”.

A real debate was needed about the curriculum, which had become too orientated towards factual knowledge at the expense of skills.  This had been recognised by the One Nation group of Conservative MPs, who had found themselves at odds with Schools Minister Nick Gibb, a determined supporter of the “knowledge-rich curriculum.”  Unfortunately, Labour had yet to engage in any debate about education.

Finally, there was a desperate need to put a stop to the current attrition in the teaching profession.  Currently, 25% of newly qualified teachers are leaving after only two years, while a further 20% give up after just five years.  A major aim of government should be to re-establish teaching as a genuine profession.

David Hughes discussed the situation from the perspective of Further Education and Sixth Form Colleges.  There had been a reduction in the number of adults participating in F.E. and for students in general there had been a loss of experience and of the enrichment that actual attendance at college can offer.  

The emphasis on “catch-up” was wrong: the learning that had been missed was not lost for life and students should not be thought of as hapless victims who had “missed out” for good.  

Remote learning was not suitable for many F.E. Courses, especially practical ones, including ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) courses.  In trying to access remote learning, F.E. students encountered the same obstacles as younger pupils – lack of good equipment etc.  

A particular concern was the situation of students currently in year 11, who have had no opportunity to familiarise themselves with what is on offer and what is needed in order to transition successfully to F.E.  Government should guarantee an extra year to such students, along with proper maintenance support.  

In general the funding of post-16 education is inadequate, well below international standards, and subject to further cuts of as much as 17.5% in respect of students in their final year of F.E.  There was a clear need to extend the Pupil Premium to age 18.

David concluded by listing eight areas of concern for post-16 education:

Carolyn Roberts shared the view of the previous speakers that the government's emphasis on “catch-up” was misplaced.  If a primary aim of public education is to build a just and sustainable democracy, such an aim was being undermined by the nature of the assessment system, which reduced education to a limited series of transactions.  

Much more important than “catch-up” was the need to restore the loss of confidence among students which the pandemic had brought about in the way it had affected the working of schools.  

At Thomas Tallis, for example, 6th form classes were now overcrowded and there was inadequate social space for students to interact with one another.  This was having a bad effect on the transition from Year 11 into 6th form.  Younger children were unable to interact casually because of the constant need to observe COVID protocols and, as a result were not developing social skills.  

Two groups of children were of particular concern: firstly, those who had internalised the values of the current, assessment driven model of education and were consequently liable to suffer from anxiety and, secondly, those whose ability to learn at school was damaged by lack of home resources.  The latter group often lost all motivation and became disruptive and difficult to manage.

Carolyn concluded by putting forward two practical ways of improving the situation in schools.  Firstly, free lap-top computers should be available to all secondary school pupils and, secondly, both pupil-contact time and time spent on administrative tasks by teachers should be significantly reduced so that teachers actually have time to think about their work.

There followed a wide ranging discussion which largely agreed with what the speakers had said about the changes needed to the system and general disappointment at the Labour Party's apparent lack of engagement with educational issues.


UPDATE

Unfortunately, the second event in this series scheduled for 26th May had to be postponed due to the illness of a key speaker.

Reclaiming Education will advise those who booked of the next planned which will take account of current developments.