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Does COVID provide a moment to re-evaluate our education system – to future (and virus) proof it?

Real Ideas co-founder Matt Little, on the future of education, one month into lockdown…

I was struck by this headline in The Guardian last week:

Education hit hardest as coronavirus batters UK economy

The fallout from the coronavirus crisis will affect certain sectors of Britain’s economy harder than most, according to analysis by the government’s independent economics watchdog (the Office for Budget Responsibility) – with education experiencing a ‘90% reduction in output’ – the hardest hit sector of the economy.

At Real Ideas we work closely with hundreds of schools, in the UK and overseas, and we partner with several universities – on research initiatives and developments like the Markethall. We also work direct with 350 young people across Cornwall, helping them develop their latent creativity and potential, and supporting them into work or training. And, of course, many of us are parents ourselves, grappling with all that entails at the moment.

What struck me particularly about the headline was that education now sits firmly as ‘an economic sector’. This is a significant shift across our lifetime (13 years) as an organisation. It also suggests that educational institutions can now, by definition, succeed or fail as a sector in the wider economy – rather than being seen as a unified national service, like the NHS.

Could it be that their resulting and underlying business and/or operating models have made them particularly vulnerable to failure in this current situation? There was significant debate about these business and operating models anyway, before the crisis hit. Many businesses and industrial bodies, including the CBI, have argued that young people are being poorly served by the sector and that the sector wasn’t meeting society’s rapidly developing needs either.

I read the headline in the business pages but have seen very little written about education in the main sections of the media. Where there has been coverage the main attention has tended to be on what is to be done about exams, testing and assessment…which is telling in terms of focus. And the systems for doing this collapsed almost overnight.

Ask any 16, 18 or 21 year old where this has left them and what they are now feeling as a result, having spent much of their life working towards particular preeminent goals in a system where individual worth, value, fairness and recognition have been connected to this framing and focus (I would argue unduly and out of balance.)

Learning – surely the principal function of the education system – has received less attention; with this semi-devolving – if you believe the papers – to a mix of celebrities, YouTubers and BBC Bitesize, all stitched together by parents.

The current discourse also ignores the essential and often brilliant roles played by schools in local communities and economies. Schools provide regular and structured warmth, care, and food for those children most in need; enabling parents to work without worry and concern because they know their children are properly looked after and supported; and when at their best they help knit communities together. What is currently working well here, and not so well in the current context? And in a fragmented system (with lots of different academy chains, trusts and bodies involved) is there a common baseline of response we can rely on?

This all says something significant and highly political about what our overall ‘national education service’ has turned into over the years, what its prime focus is currently deemed to be, and what relevance it now has and – most importantly – could have to all our lives, during the crisis and beyond. Particularly contrasting with the nature of the vibrant and positive ongoing national conversation about the NHS.

But I was perhaps most struck by what this means for children, young people, and their families – especially the most vulnerable, with the Department for Education reporting that just 5% of vulnerable children were in school in England last week.

Children and young people have little voice or agency in terms of what has happened to them as a result of the profound and extreme ‘collapse in output of this sector of the economy’ – they have been somewhat cast adrift. Their lives and their development are the output.

It’s not just primary or secondary schools; students at colleges and universities are similarly hit hard. As the NUS has just commented “the current crisis has shown that students occupy the worst of all possible worlds – with the majority paying extortionate fees for their education [and their housing] and treated as consumers but left out in the cold when the product cannot be delivered as described,”

College and University students are being left disenfranchised, believing the qualifications they have worked hard for will be tainted or devalued, that the system is unfair, worried about future prospects, and experiencing economic hardship and extreme and inconsistent diversity of response and support from their educational institutions (some great, some not so…).

It feels like a pressure cooker is building, and that our national education service needs urgent care, focus and attention too. Does this provide a time to re-evaluate our education system – to future (and virus) proof it? We’ve got ideas here and no doubt you do too, we’d love to hear them…

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