E in Education

The Government’s Education Policy gets a Failing Grade.

On 18th March, a Wednesday, it was announced that schools across the UK would close on the following Friday. This enormous move, which pre-empted gym closures by a week, was broadly seen as a stopgap measure, whilst the government worked out what they should do to limit spread of Covid-19. Since then, the stopgap has become essentially permanent, with the government failing to provide any meaningful teaching for students during the pandemic, and failing to reopen when they said they would, in June. Exam cancellation has left thousands of students in the lurch, with poorly designed systems and unprepared ministers failing young people. 

Overall, this has been a catastrophe for educational standards. The attainment gap has widened, with those at private schools or privileged backgrounds continuing to get online teaching or higher quality home-schooling. Initially, it was forgivable – the crisis was not anticipated, so the Department for Education and schools alike had little time to prepare. It has now been months since schools shut their gates, though, and online solutions remain uncommon and ineffective.

Perhaps the starkest sign of disarray was the cancellation of GCSE and A-Levels, which came two days after the initial school cancellation announcement. The dystopian reality of geography and school-based algorithm determining the grades of children, further stacking the deck against the most disadvantaged has been realised. Showing a complete lack of imagination and creative policymaking, rather than finding ways to assess students, the government cancelled exams, leaving hundreds of thousands of young people in the lurch. Forward planning – including structured ‘mock’ examinations, a more robust switch to online learning and assessment, or a delay to exams – could have made a huge difference here but was seemingly absent. Like the unprepared student the night before the exam, the government found that ‘failing to prepare’ was ‘preparing to fail.’ The series of unclear U-turns and flipflops are symptomatic of a government without clear a strategic vision. From the very beginning, the Department for Education and Number 10 have.

The most badly affected are likely to be those in primary education, however. Where online teaching is a possibility for many older children, the younger the child, the more difficult it is to carry out. Children will likely have fallen behind on reading and writing, which form the building blocks of most of their future study. This isn’t just a short-run disaster – it could lead to a generation of less educated workers, which if not addressed, could result in serious economic damage further down the line.

To prevent the crisis becoming even worse, the government needs to act much more quickly. Firstly, education needs to be a priority – schools should be reopened early. We can’t continue to choose a cool drink in a pub over the learning of our children. Likewise, the next academic year needs to be extended; children will have a lot of catching up to do. Finally, the school day should also be extended for older children. This would allow some catching up of material that was missed previously and will also free up parents to work more effectively from home.

More teaching will require more teachers, so the government needs to draw on every resource they have. In the same way as qualified clinicians who’d left their profession were drafted in to work in the NHS at the height of the health crisis, former teachers should be brought back as well, to deal with our unfolding educational crisis. Likewise, those nearing graduation, in education or teacher training, should be hurried into the workplace part-time, offering additional afterschool top-ups to help disadvantaged children catch up.

It is also the best time to conduct a broader switch to digital. Children who grew up with YouTube and Netflix are accustomed to consuming media online, and schools should take advantage of the current situation to make a shift to embrace that. Recorded lessons distributed as a video are no substitute to face-to-face teaching, but they can be a complement to it. We need to embrace the 21st century in our education system, both to make our teaching more efficient, and in case we face a second wave.

Alongside the NHS, schools are the most important institutions in our country. They produce our most important skills, our first sense of culture, and instil many of our most important values. Education provides an opportunity to change the path of the most disadvantaged in our country; it is also the way for us all to grow the economy in the long run. To allow the pandemic to permanently damage our education system would be to permanently lower our productivity, increase inequality, and damage the common culture of the nation. The government must learn from its mistakes, so that our children can get back to learning from theirs. 

Matthew Oulton is an Economics student at the University of Warwick. A keen writer on Economics and more broadly, Matthew also works part-time at a Sales Consultancy and sings in the Choir of Coventry Cathedral.

He tweets at @matthewoulton

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