Edison Huynh discusses the need to have a wider conversation about the importance of education in the 21st century.
Some schools in England will have reopened on June 1st after more than 2 months of lockdown. For the rest of the UK, schools remain shut. There are rightly concerns expressed by unions over the safety of pupils and staff1. Covid-19 has posed many questions regarding the immediate impact such as safeguarding for vulnerable students and digital access, but it has also exposed us to larger questions which were already there before the pandemic. If we do not use this pause to examine both immediate and longer-term questions regarding education, it will result in a recovery from Covid-19 that is as unequal as its immediate impact.
Let us first turn to the immediate impact. Like the disproportionate health and economic impacts of Covid-192, research from the Sutton Trust highlights the unequal access to education during lockdown. In the most deprived schools, 15% of teachers report that more than a third of their students would not have adequate access to an electronic device for learning, compared to only 2% in the most affluent state schools3. 2020 will be ‘the year of two summers’ – a reference to the annual ‘learning loss’ that is particularly pronounced for disadvantaged students over the summer break4. Indeed, Covid-19 has exposed inequalities that we already knew existed.
Despite these pre-existing inequalities, the policy response has always been narrowly focused on structural factors such as school type, accountability frameworks, and curriculum reform. Whilst these are important issues, the longer-term trends which face our country, indeed every country, call for a far larger policy response. McKinsey estimates that due to the impact of AI and automation on the labour market, 30 percent of the activities in 60 percent of all occupations could be automated5. Of course, some of the lost jobs will be replaced by new jobs created through technology adoption but only when reskilling needs are met. In both the immediate post-Covid period and the longer-term horizon, changing jobs and even changing sectors will become more commonplace. This effect will be felt regardless of age and so the question becomes: how can we expand our notion of education in terms of who benefits from it and how can they access it?
The pandemic should force us to think about this question with urgency. It has accelerated trends such as remote working which mitigates disruption but is only possible for certain professions. For others, the recovery will be long and uncertain with some jobs potentially lost for good. That is why we need to tackle the immediate impacts of Covid-19 in a way which ensures that we are also responding to the longer-term challenges of the fourth industrial revolution. Lifelong education has to be part of the answer. Labour has already taken some encouraging steps with the National Education Service6 in both our 2017 and 2019 manifestos. However, we need to broaden out that conversation still further, and be prepared to think boldly. Ideas such as open-loop institutions (see Stanford’s vision7), citizen learning credits (see Singapore’s SkillsFuture policy8), micro-credentialing (e.g. Digital Promise in the US9) all need to be robustly explored for the UK context. Moreover, education is more than just about employment. Last year, I edited a collection of essays called ‘The Future of Education’10 for IPPR. In it, we considered the effects of macrotrends such as big data, rising nationalism, and advances in neuroscience on education. It is important to note that as we embark on these broader conversations, any change we propose should be anchored by our frontline workers and that is why accompanying essay responses from teachers are included.
As the son of refugees, I have long been told of the emancipatory power of education and indeed, long believed the unspoken social contract: work hard at school and you will be guaranteed the means to support your family. That is no longer the case. As we head into the deepest recession in a generation, we need to have a bigger conversation about how learners of all ages can prepare for the 21st century. We should also be looking abroad and learning from other countries who will also be considering a renewed social contract post Covid-19. As we emerge from lockdown and schools reopen and furloughing ends, we cannot lose this opportunity to think bold about education. Many in the Labour movement are rightly talking about a green recovery, but we also need to talk about an education-led recovery too. If we don’t, the recovery from this virus will be just as unequal as its impact.
Edison is a former science teacher from Lewisham and has previously worked for Teach First and IPPR. He is currently Director of Education Research for a startup based in China and the US but is working remotely from home in London.
He tweets at @edison1d