The crisis surrounding schools and the noisy anger it has generated represent almost every aspect of the history of Covid 19 in England. Gavin Williamson, the education minister, has brought the government’s bleak combination of greed and incompetence to a new level. When Andrew Marr interviewed Boris Johnson today, it was striking that so much of the discussion was dedicated to schools, but in the vagueness of the role of the prime minister on pressing issues, there was a tired familiarity. The fact that in two weeks there is not even a straight line on the suggested opening of all schools in England hardly meets the need for clarification and guidance from people.
Boroughs in London, which refused the offer to open their elementary school on January 4, have forced the government to make another U-turn.
Meanwhile, there is increasing concern that the new variant is expanding across classrooms, and a “shift to online learning” is now often spoken about – but this may intensify many harsh realities that emerged during the pandemic. “connectivity” for many families consists of a paying smartphone running on a mobile network; remote learning is an entirely lost dream in millions of cases. While leadership disparities have existed between England and the rest of the United Kingdom over the past nine months, none of the four nations have modified their education structures to the degree demanded by the pandemic.
Teachers’ unions have responded in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to proposals to open schools this month with the same cynicism and resistance as in England.
But it is clear that the English method, which for more than a decade has been dominated by stubborn and nostalgic Tory thinking, varies in a degree of rancor and disarray from other systems. The extreme effect of the pandemic has not yet changed a crucial Tory article of faith, aside from the immediate crisis on what to do with schools: that students still need to plan to take GCSEs, A levels and most of the sats that children in English schools take at the age of 11. While the Scottish and Welsh governments have cancelled the examinations for this summer, Westminster ministers, albeit with a few supposedly generous modifications, are evidently hell-bent on continuing. The government maintains 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.” even as normalcy continues to break down.
I spoke with Michelle Sheehy last week, co-head of Millfield Primary in Brownhills, near Walsall, a location I’ve visited twice in recent years, first to report on school budget cuts and then on the educational effects of the pandemic. The Sats’ dictatorship, she told me, suggests that some of their workers would soon have to spend long hours teaching Year 6 students the kind of “testing technique” that will optimize their scores (how long to spend on questions, what to look for in reading).
For now, such things seem ridiculously insignificant, because their current sixth-graders will be checked anyway when they reach secondary school in September. “The kids will be coming back to school having had no 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. We have so much to do with them to raise their spirits and negate the virus’s effects.
The school system in England has been increasingly fractured while still becoming highly centralized since Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings took office at the Department for Education in the early years of the coalition government. The curriculum has become much too old-fashioned and inflexible, underscored by vocal protests from teachers about the closure of room for initiative and creativity.
Education needs to be resilient and adaptable, as noted earlier, and sustained by the skill and enthusiasm of those who actually provide it.
But the Tories have created a structure that is in all these ways by marginalizing councils, undermining teacher morale, preferring the old-fashioned over the future-oriented, and making a mockery of the child-centered aspects of education.