Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, there has been a strong wave of public support for key workers and this has included teachers; for example, they are explicitly mentioned on the front page of the clap for our carers website. However there are widely differing views about the crucial role of schools and teachers in enabling the economy to begin to return to something like normal. On one side the right wing press – and the Education Secretary – cleverly placed this as a call to the ‘duty’ of teachers, positioning ‘hero’ teachers in opposition to the teacher unions. On the other, many parents are concerned about the safety of schools for their children. Other UK nations – not to mention some English LAs – take the view that it is unsafe to open schools so soon, as we can see. Meanwhile, the Children’s Commissioner argues that disadvantaged children need to return to school quickly.
Whatever emerges in the short term, I want to focus on a wider set of issues that link to these differing views, all of which relate to longstanding concerns about the primary purposes of schooling and policy responses.
Firstly, the decision to award GCSE, A Level and end of Primary SATs grades without testing highlights a key issue: England’s testing-heavy education system. As our research shows, preparation for SATs takes up a huge proportion of time at the upper primary age, and the results are treated with suspicion by secondary schools which retest children as soon as they arrive in Y7. If we can do without SATs this year, then the case becomes stronger for fewer high-stakes national tests, with alternatives such as sample-based testing to judge school performance.
Secondly, and most importantly in the immediate aftermath, is the already apparent increase in inequality. In its most visceral form, the loss of free school meals and botched provision of replacement vouchers has laid bare the poverty many of our children are living in; and a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report has demonstrated the difference in educational experiences under lockdown between the most and least advantaged. There are particular issues facing those students transitioning between education phases. Policy makers will need to prioritise addressing this: Education Policy Institute (EPI) research provides some useful policy suggestions including doubling pupil premium and supporting one to one and small group tuition.
Thirdly, the argument about returning to school demonstrates that schools are about more than formal education and creating a skilled workforce. Current UK government policy favours (in England) a test-based, strongly subject-focused curriculum and accountability system, as a colleague and I discussed in an article comparing the manifestos of the main parties at the recent election. However, Covid-19 highlights the wider role of schools, in relation to social, mental and physical health as noted by the Children’s Commissioner, well beyond preparation for exams. In the coming months, schools will be required to deal with these issues, and government will need to respond.
I conclude with three inter-related approaches that government should consider, to address the issues raised in this brief piece. Firstly, to address widening educational equalities the EPI suggestions on pupil support should be considered. Secondly, specific resourcing of child social and health support should be put in place. Thirdly, as we move into the next phase of the crisis, this resource needs to be effectively linked to schools, which will rapidly be placed in the front line of public policy responses to the effects of Covid-19 on children and young people.
by Mike Coldwell | Head Of Contract Research & KT | Sheffield Hallam University