A sickness has swept through our schools and it has been around far longer than COVID. The news serves up innumerable international comparisons, scarcely taking the time to warn its audiences of the limitations of these nationalist competitions. Belgium is somehow doing a worse job than Britain, but it is the US that is worst of all as far as casualties is concerned. We are used to league tables, not just in sport but education too. In the ‘global race’, as politicians repeatedly allude to (without elaborating on where we are racing to), guides like PISA have for a long time been indicating that schools in the Far East are much in advance of the UK in their mathematics education. Consequently, schools minister Nick Gibb was very keen to adopt Shanghai methodologies with scant regard for their ability to be transplanted to the local context. Far less interesting to him is the Finnish approach which opted to reform a moribund system by doing away with unnecessary distractions like homework or standardised testing, thereby finding its ‘results’ were improving dramatically.
The leading spokesman for the Finnish system Pasi Sahlberg identified a GERM that was ravaging the schools of the world. This Global Educational Reform Movement was responsible for a number of symptoms: look out for standardisation, in which the quality of ‘outcomes’ could be improved by externally imposed assessments set on centrally prescribed curricula. Also, try to spot a focus on core subjects, that is in effect, an emphasis on the three R’s above all else and in particular, above humanities, music, crafts, etc. Another sign is the promotion of a ‘low-risk’ pedagogy which shies from using experimentation or alternative (progressive) methods and therefore threatens to undermine the securing of results in higher stakes testing. Finally, you will see the school employing corporate management models originally developed to maximise profit in business rather than ‘moral goals of human development’ and also ‘test-based accountability policies’ for schools (which feed into the dreaded league tables).
Test-based policies are used to credit students with a narrow range of achievements (particularly in academic skills) and to punish teachers who are not perceived to expedite these results. Sahlberg assures us that Finnish schools exhibit none of these symptoms. Many countries since the eighties (US and UK being the worst) have pressed ahead with these policies when, if they would consider immunising against GERM, they should consider measures like regarding their teachers as high professionals (not just occupying the loco parentis), experiment more by placing curiosity, imagination and creativity at the centre of learning and focus on the “development of the whole child”. In addition to this, expertise in educational change needs to be brought in to resist the harmful effects listed above.
Eight years after Sahlberg warned us of this, we find ourselves hunkered down in a battle against a different virus. To suggest that its effects are anything other than catastrophic would be irresponsible, but it has given us an opportunity to reflect on our situation. What is more, we have done precious little to prepare for this crisis. Downgrading all our social securities, be they the health service, pensions or the welfare state in general has removed safety nets. Given that we have been living on credit for the last few decades, this hardly prepares us for a pandemic.
Despite the hospital statistics, it is not only the older generation that is paying for this neglect. There exists a strange double standard in the contemporary world. Everyday we are insisting how precious the young are and how we need to protect them from the world they face beyond a childhood which seems to end as late as their eighteenth birthday, but we wring our hands at the appalling prospects they have when entering the almost hopeless job market.
After a crisis, when the economy becomes steady, we thank our good fortune. If it remains steady for a while, we thank our good judgement. When it remains relatively steady for generations, we thank nothing and forget it could be any other way. Not that we have not been given plenty of reminders (especially in 1987 and 2008). COVID offers a different sort of reminder and we need to take heed more than we did of the other crises. During the (first) lockdown we had a unique opportunity to reconsider our situation. An economy based on rampant consumerism and a debilitating work ethic was not getting the majority anywhere. And what was the function of schools in all of this? Was it to help more of the population into that kind of life; no questions asked?
The constant reminder from the government was that we cannot afford to stop work. We have an industry today that is reliant on services far more than on manufacturing – the so-called gig economy that was supposed to be the key to future wealth has shown itself to be a house of cards. This house is so far just resisting a breeze, but a second lockdown may have it face a gale. We have to get the people back to work, we are told. Therefore, we have to get the children back to school. Now, it does the State little credit to tell its population that schools are needed for childminding so the government must first identify that children are at relatively low risk. If the teaching unions have the temerity to resist having their members made into canon fodder in the battle against this virus, it will then need to point out that the education of students from socially deprived backgrounds will suffer more from this withdrawal than their middle class counterparts. This moral posture could hardly wash given that the government is clearly responsible for the social deprivation and its educational disadvantages long before this global pandemic.
The ultimate hypocrisy, however, was reserved for the claim that many of our children are suffering from mental illness on account of their withdrawal from school. Parents across the country are again subject to moral blackmail to recognise their primary duty: safeguarding their child. And the stakes are so high they could not possibly question whether this is the root of the problem. What they need to re-discover is how schools have been causing mental health problems for a very long time. If you really care about the well-being of your child, do not send him or her into an intellectual prison with little scope for self-expression, especially in matters that do not benefit an economy reliant on an obedient workforce. Meanwhile, students are increasingly having to do things for themselves and although that is a big demand on ones that have been so intensely directed by others, not themselves, the benefits may surprise a lot of people and embarrass others. What has been threatened as ‘the school years lost to COVID’ may just prove to deliver the most sought after employees on account of their enhanced resilience and versatility.
When Johnson wrote; “Keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible”, he is not reasoning with the public, he is sermonising like a headmaster at a school assembly. We are warned that it will take a while before we get back to normal. We should respond; “Normal? We don’t want normal. That’s what got us where we are now. We want better than normal!”