We need to get a grip on education and the growing attainment gap
PUBLISHED: 21:00 19 June 2020
SUNA ERDEM on the continuing failure of the government to get a grip on the issue of education in the pandemic
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“Absolutely astonishing!” “Smacks of poor organisation.” Damning words from Ofsted’s former chief Michael Wilshaw on the government’s failure to orchestrate an orderly return to education in the shadow of Covid-19.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has been no more forgiving. It was time Boris Johnson took responsibility for his failings on this, he railed at prime ministers’ questions last week: “This mess was avoidable. The consequences are stark.”
In the days after it emerged that only a fraction of primary school children slated to return to the classroom had done so, and efforts to get other years in by the summer looking remote, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has been accused of “sleeping on the job”. Even the normally supportive Daily Telegraph and Conservative MPs have piled in with criticism of a leadership that has been accused of caring more about opening pubs and amusement parks than schools.
Williamson’s department is now pledging a “very big” summer school catch-up programme for schoolchildren, but it does not have an encouraging record of delivering on such promises.
The idea has already been criticised. Britain’s so-called “strictest head teacher”, Katharine Birbalsingh – whose earlier criticisms of anti-aspirational education found strong support in the Conservative Party – wrote on Twitter: “Why summer school? To catch up the kids who fell behind. Why did they fall behind? Lockdown. Did no work at home. Ah. So you think they will come to school to do the work in the holidays? Gotcha. Remind me again who has taken over the asylum?”
Truly, this pandemic has not been kind to the government, which has been badly exposed as the UK came from behind to race towards one of the highest per capita coronavirus death tolls in the world. This month, following a series of U-turns and rows over education, it has faced some of its worst criticism yet.
It is becoming increasingly clear that even in September there may not be normal, undisrupted schooling.
“I can’t see us returning properly this side of Christmas, if that,” Robert, chair of governors at a secondary school, told me.
And now, less than three months after the cancellation of this summer’s GCSEs and A-levels, next summer’s testing also looks in doubt, with educators calling for the nature and content for exams to be changed to allow for lost teaching time.
It is a worrying time, especially for poorer and more vulnerable children, says David Laws, a former education minister and now executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute.
“When all of this started people assumed schools would be locked down for a few months. There would be learning loss but people would be back to normal to September at worst,” he said. Now even without a possible second wave of the pandemic, a widening attainment gap is a rapidly growing concern.
Laws called for a serious government plan explaining to schools how they can deliver catch-up learning, and greater clarity around expectations for September. “We can’t deliver certainty, but there needs to be a clear plan on the assumption that schools will go back and a Plan B if they can’t.”
The uncertain science around child infectiousness and the increasingly febrile debate about schooling is feeding through to families, and comes as the government and unions trade barbs instead of collaborating.
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At the same time, we are treated to reports of Danish teachers demonstrating how easy it is to reopen schools with a bit of foresight and some hazard tape. “Why are we so catastrophically behind?” is a perennial lament on parent WhatsApp groups.
Yet the international picture is more nuanced. Firstly, many countries went into lockdown before we did, meaning that they also emerged earlier. Less time lost, fewer remaining infections and decent testing and tracing provided a safer environment for schools to reopen. You can attack this government for not locking down earlier, insufficient PPE, testing or planning, and for losing public trust. But, with infections still high and a second wave uncertain, less so for failing to open schools more quickly.
Few countries have everyone back. Even Sweden, famously open throughout the pandemic, still has no physical schooling at the top of secondary schools. Italy has not opened at all. In countries with experiences as diverse as France and South Korea, some reopened schools closed again rapidly after infections appeared.
Those that are open are almost unrecognizable. Social distancing, outdoor classes, plastic screens between pupils, relentless handwashing, a trimmed curriculum and small classes of children rotating between home and school are becoming the norm. The provision is blended – new buzzword alert – between teaching at school and online at the home. It’s a pattern likely to be replicated here.
Fiona Boulton, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, says the pandemic has been testing the ingenuity of teachers like never before.
“It’s never been busier…You must be agile and creative. When lockdown was announced, within three days we had to come up with a whole new school,” explains Boulton, also headmistress of Guildford High School. She’s offering virtual teaching to large groups across schools, welcoming primary pupils into classrooms, and devising a bespoke plan for September: “Everything is on the table.”
Emma, a state secondary teacher, says her workload includes ‘live’ remote teaching and pre-recorded video lessons, as well as helping other, older teachers grapple with the kind of IT they never signed up for.
While online teaching is intense, it has surprising benefits – no banter, no showing off and no need for crowd control means that some are even learning more than usual, including the previously disillusioned.
A constant stream of changing government advice coupled with a lack of consultation hasn’t helped an already daunting task. Heads says they often only hear a new policy when announced in briefings – most drastically the sudden decision to cancel summer exams. If the Treasury can consult and adapt, they say, why can’t the DfE?
Teachers also complain that much advice is contradictory. It’s impossible to keep classes to bubbles of around 15 yet avoid a rota system discouraged by government. Suggestions for using public buildings and retired teachers to overcome the effective doubling of schools at a time when existing teachers may be off sick might be interesting, but don’t seem to take into account the full extent of the logistical problem.
And, with so much left to individual schools, not all were able to rise to the challenge. One father with three children at different schools complained to me that while one received good tuition, the others had unsuitable work. His dyslexic son had no help at all.
In disadvantaged schools the challenges multiply exponentially: pupils need more help, funding is scarce and due to retention problems the teachers can be less sure of themselves, yet parents are less able to help. Their learning environments is poor. Devices are lacking.
A first step would be to provide technology to these homes, said Dr Rebecca Montacute, from the Sutton Trust. But it’s still difficult to keep these children engaged and their parents are judged less likely to support a partial return to school.
“My biggest worry would be that if more children go in part-time and online provision winds down to enable more teaching in school, we could get middle class children going in and these disadvantaged children will get even less education.”
With the pandemic being so life-changing, it does seem to beg the question as to why an even more radical approach isn’t being welcomed. Why, for instance, is the UK’s famously relentless education process, with its many high-stakes exams, not relaxed a bit by pressing the pause button, maybe extending the year to Christmas and beyond? However, the knock-on impact seems so complicated that ministers are seeking to avoid such a scenario.
Shame. Since this could also help mitigate against the other precious things that have been lost. “When shutdown was announced, I realised that they wouldn’t get their concerts, their proms, their sports events. That my year 13s would just disappear, hastily leaving the school with nothing,” said Emma. “It was the saddest day. I went into my office and cried.”
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