education

'Open all schools!' 'Close all schools!' What England really needs is creative thinking | John Harris


The crisis enveloping schools, and the noisy resentment it has sparked, reflect just about every aspect of England’s Covid-19 story. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has taken the government’s grim mixture of arrogance and incompetence to new depths. When Boris Johnson was interviewed by Andrew Marr today it was striking to see so much of the conversation devoted to schools, but there was a wearying familiarity to the vagueness of the prime minister’s position on urgent issues. The fact that there is no clear line even on the proposed opening of all schools in England a fortnight from now hardly answers people’s need for clarity and leadership.

Yet again councils, who are only too aware of local realities, have objected to edicts from Whitehall. In London, boroughs that rejected the demand that their primary schools open on 4 January forced yet another government U-turn. Meanwhile, as concerns grow about the new variant spreading via schools, talk of “a switch to online learning” is now common – yet this could exacerbate many hard realities that have emerged during the pandemic. For plenty of families, “connectivity” amounts to a pay-as-you-go smartphone running on a mobile network; in millions of cases, remote learning is a completely vain hope.

Though the past nine months have seen contrasts in leadership between England and the rest of the UK, none of the four nations has realigned its education system to anything like the extent the pandemic demands. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, teachers’ unions have responded to plans to open schools this month with the same scepticism and opposition seen in England. But clearly, there are levels of rancorousness and disarray on display in the English system – gripped by stubborn and nostalgic Tory thinking for more than a decade – that set it apart. Hit by something as big as the pandemic, it was probably always going to teeter into failure.

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Beyond the immediate crisis over what should happen to schools, the extremities of the pandemic have yet to shift one key article of Tory faith: that pupils must still prepare to sit GCSEs, A-levels and most of the Sats that kids in English schools take when they are 11. Though the Scottish and Welsh governments have called off this summer’s exams, ministers in Westminster are apparently hellbent on pressing ahead, albeit with a few supposedly generous tweaks. Even as normality continues to collapse, the government insists that exams are the “best and fairest way for young people to show what they know and can do” and that SATs provide “vital information”.

Last week, I spoke to Michelle Sheehy, the co-headteacher of Millfield Primary in Brownhills, near Walsall – somewhere I have visited twice in recent years, reporting first on cuts to school budgets, then the pandemic’s impact on education. The tyranny of Sats, she told me, means some of her staff will soon have to spend long hours teaching year 6 pupils the kind of “test technique” (how long to spend on questions, what to look for when they’re reading) that will maximise their scores. Right now, such things seem laughably irrelevant.

When they begin secondary school in September, her current year 6 students will be assessed anyway. “Children will be coming back to school having not had time with their friends and their families – if they’ve been in isolation, they haven’t been able to see their close relatives,” she says. “There’s so much we need to do with them to get their spirits up and negate the effects of the virus. I don’t want to spend that time preparing them for Sats.”

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Since the arrivals of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings at the Department for Education (DfE) in the early years of the coalition government, the schools system in England has somehow been both increasingly fragmented and woefully centralised. The curriculum has become far too old-fashioned and inflexible, highlighted by loud complaints from teachers about the closing down of space for initiative and invention.

Though Williamson’s surreal incompetence is clear, the crisis his reign at the DfE has prompted goes much deeper. As we have been reminded, education needs to be resilient, adaptable, and run on the expertise and passion of those who actually deliver it. But by marginalising councils, killing teachers’ morale, favouring the old-fashioned over the forward-looking, and scoffing at the more nurturing child-centred aspects of education, the Tories built a system that failed on all these counts.

The anxieties Covid-19 has loaded on to teachers and support staff, and the arduous realities of their work in the pandemic, are still underappreciated. Vaccinations for people who work in schools and a functioning testing system for staff and pupils are now matters of huge urgency. But there are also ways that schools could deliver at least some education in safer circumstances than the standard classroom that should have been tried way before this new meltdown.

Indeed, what makes the start of this term all the more anguished for parents, children and teachers is the fact that, before the arrival of the latest Covid peak, far too much time was spent shouting about either closing schools to 99% of kids, or insisting they somehow deliver the closest possible approximation of “normal” education. More creative thinking failed to gain any momentum.

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From unions and some enlightened politicians there have been proposals for “Nightingale schools”, which might shift lessons to new, larger spaces (think of all the empty theatres, cinemas and music venues), but they have come to nothing. In Belgium and Denmark, schools have moved some of their operations to public buildings and outdoor locations. In many US states, teaching has been shifted into the open air – which has continued amid snowy weather in Maine, Colorado and New Hampshire. In the balmy conditions of the first lockdown, why wasn’t an expansion of that approach not widely trialled in the UK, so it could have been used even in the winter?

The questions go on. Though there are now promises of a million laptops and tablets for poorer households, why has the government failed so pathetically so far? Could the idea of blended learning, whereby pupils go to school part-time in smaller classes, finally achieve more prominence? Given that the internet does not reach many households, why hasn’t television been more thoroughly used to make up for the interruptions to schooling?

There are plenty of reasons to feel downcast about the state we are in, but this one is particularly painful. No field of policy is more important than state education, and in the past year a whole set of dated and rigid ideas about education has been tested to destruction. It is now time to come up with something new.



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