Secondary schooling and the new futures for education

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Lisa Tunnell draws out the lessons from the pandemic

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the faults and inequalities of the system we live under. This is as true of the education systems as in other areas of life. Many educational issues have been exposed, such as the unequal access to distance learning, the poor provision of Free School Meals and the push for an unsafe wider reopening of schools. However, the pandemic has also shown the importance of schools, not just as places of learning, but as hubs of the community.
Throughout the crisis, schools have organised and delivered food parcels, donated spare equipment and made PPE for the NHS, as well as organising outreach support for local families. Schools have done this while continuing to provide education for students — both through online learning and on site for keyworker and vulnerable students. In carrying out this vital work, educators have had a glimpse of how education could be organised differently, in ways that prioritise the needs of the community. What communities need and want from education has also been a central demand of the Black Lives Matter movement. The huge protests in response to the murder of George Floyd re-energised calls to address racism in education and in particular to decolonise the curriculum (something which had been gaining momentum even before the pandemic).
Across the UK, educators, trade unionists, parents, students and community groups have come together in large online meetings to discuss ideas for anti-racist education. Challenging the institutional racism of our education system is crucial, in and of itself. The process of doing so, however, is also enormously important because it challenges existing ideas about what education is and what education should be for. The crisis has laid bare the governments’ own educational ideology. The Tories’ vision of education for working class children is about the teaching of core subjects and skills necessary for the world of work. It is about forcing schools to compete in order to open up the education system to market forces.
It is also about disciplining working class children and their families through stringent attendance policies, fines, behaviour and uniform policies. The government guidance for wider school reopening in September talks about maintaining a ‘broad’ and ‘ambitious’ curriculum. However, the lack of any new funding for extra staff or resources — and the requirement for children to be taught in bubbles — will make this incredibly difficult. Despite announcements of £1 billion to “ensure that schools have the resources they need”, £650 million of this is a one-off grant to spend on “catch up”. It is still unclear how this money will be distributed. However, the National Tutoring Programme (worth £350 million) announced by the government shows that they aim to spend most of the money on private tutoring firms and one-to-one support, rather than being invested directly into schools.
Indeed, the guidance makes it clear that schools “should use their existing resources’ for wider reopening and that there are ‘no plans at present to reimburse additional costs incurred as part of that process”. For many schools, keeping students in bubbles in separate parts of the site will mean they are unable to access specialist rooms and equipment required for subjects such as catering, photography, art, and drama. Without extra staff, time and resources to repeatedly clean specialist equipment, or ensure students do not have to share, many schools will simply be unable to offer these subjects. In the schools which can it is likely GCSE students will be prioritised since future funding depends on good exam results.
This will leave KS3 students (11 to 14 year olds) without little access. The requirement for schools to maintain a broad curriculum is contradicted by government guidance that allows schools to “suspend some subjects for some pupils”, Although it says that this should be done “in exceptional circumstances”, it later says examined subjects can be discontinued if a student “would achieve significantly better in their remaining subjects as a result”. Of course, in some circumstances this might be best for individual students. However, the intense pressure that schools and colleges are under to produce the best exam results and highest levels of progress is bound to affect decisions about how many subjects students continue to study at GCSE and A-Level. With routine Ofsted inspections starting up again in January 2021 and the government aiming to return to the “normal” system of exams and league tables as soon as possible, many students may be pressured to drop subjects in order to boost their school’s exam results.
The pressure to drop exam subjects may also be exacerbated by the exam boards’ refusal to reduce the content of exams in any meaningful way that acknowledges the time teachers have lost. Some changes have been accepted but these are minor. For example, the only thing that has changed in the AQA English Language exam is getting rid of the requirement to record students during their Speaking and Listening assessment, a task that does not take up much teaching time and one that is already squeezed into a packed specification. This refusal to sacrifice any but the most minor elements of the exam system shows the extent to which the government is committed to preserving it, under the guise of concern for students falling behind.
It is clear the government regards the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to reinforce their ideas about education. Under the excuse of seeking to halt virus spread, it has issued instructions that all students should sit in rows facing the front of the classroom. But for many educators, this is an attack on good educational practice and pedagogy which shows children learn best in groups and through discussion. The government have attacked these practices for years and are now seeking to use Covid-19 to deepen this ideological offensive. The plan for the wider reopening of schools from 1 June was also clearly about restarting the economy and getting people back to work, rather than any concern for the education of children. Primary schools bore the brunt of this and showed resistance, with huge parents’ meetings, union meetings, petitions and opposition from 60 councils. It was a humiliating defeat for the government, with reports showing only one in four primary students returned on that day.
The success of the resistance can also be seen in the growth of the National Education Union, which led the opposition to the governments’ plans. Over 20, 000 new members — 3,000 of which are new workplace reps — have joined since the start of the crisis. The Five Tests issued to the government by the NEU, stating the five health and safety conditions that needed to be met for a safe reopening of schools, created a major rallying point for opposition. Now, the union’s Ten Point Plan offers an alternative to the government plans for wider reopening in September. Unlike the government, the NEU is calling for the requisition of public buildings — such as libraries, sports halls and civic centres — to create extra space and enable proper social distancing. It proposes finding extra staff by encouraging qualified teachers who have left back into the profession, which would enable smaller class sizes.
It wants well-being, rather than tests and exams, to be put at the centre of education. It also calls for a fully resourced national plan for children’s wellbeing to support those suffering trauma. The organisation built during the resistance to wider reopening, and ongoing discussions about the curriculum in workplaces and in trade union meetings, has raised confidence about what can be achieved in education. The crisis has challenged the exam factory system and shown that it is possible to replace it with teacher assessment. The suspension of Ofsted and league tables has shown it is possible for education to exist without the intense scrutiny and accountability to which teachers have increasingly burdened teachers over the last decades.
Working without this pressure has allowed teachers to be more creative in their approaches to distance learning. The transition to distance learning required teachers to learn new skills and use new technology, and they adapted remarkably quickly. They have sought to engage students by making lessons and activities exploratory, often encouraging children to lead their own learning. The government has made a point of discouraging the use of ‘projects’ and ‘research’ as part of distance learning packages after September. Clearly, the greater independence teachers have found in planning and setting lessons during the crisis is a threat to the knowledge-based and teacher-led curriculum preferred by the government.
The creation and promotion of the Oak Academy — an online education provider founded mainly by CEOs and teachers at academies — is part of the government’s fightback. Nominally providing resources as a way to reduce teacher workload, the Oak Academy is also a way of spearheading the sort of off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all lessons that are so profitable for big edu-businesses. All of this sets the scene of a battle for education rolling on into the next academic year. While we fight for the safety of our children, staff and communities, we must also fight for a better education system: more funding and resources, a broad-based and child-centred curriculum and progressive pedagogy. There must be no return to the old ‘normal’. For our sake and for the sake of our children we must fight for a new future.
Lisa Tunnell is a secondary school teacher in the East Midlands.