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Mon 6 July 2020
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Dr John Ashton, a former director of public health, argues that we must not miss the opportunity to modernise education in the UK and, at the same time, tackle social injustices following the Coronavirus pandemic.

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It is often claimed that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ carries with it contradictory notions of danger and opportunity, although this has been disputed by authorities in linguistics. Nevertheless, the experience of clinicians treating patients with a range of conditions is that of a crisis as, for example, in classical pneumonia where a dangerously high temperature may be followed by rapid resolution, which is not that uncommon and may in fact be a feature of COVID-19 infection.

The current global emergency brought about by the pandemic can be seen in such terms as it affects individual patients. However, there is a more profound sense in which it has brought about a crisis in just about every aspect of our daily lives.

It is not just our public health and health services that have been brought to the crunch over the past five months, but our globalised economy, our relationship with the built and natural environment, and our living, travelling, working and leisure activities right down to the way we organise education at each stage of life.

At this point, all our systems are up for grabs having been subjected to the extreme stress test brought about by one of the simplest life forms based on strands of RNA. If ever there was proof of the butterfly effect – the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon (or a virus in Wuhan) can cause a typhoon on the other side of the world – this must be it.

Yet, at this point, it is also far from clear whether the often claimed most intelligent species in the evolutionary story is capable of standing back and seizing the opportunity of reconfiguring our lives to achieve reciprocity with the natural systems that sustain us. Ironically, this particularly seems to be the case with the UK’s approach to education and its institutions as we stand on the verge of returning our young people to a set of arrangements that have been in existence for hundreds of years.

Taken as a whole, our education system is in disarray.


Increasing Inequality

It has become clear that the burden of the lockdown over the past two months has not been evenly felt, having fallen disproportionately on those who are most disadvantaged to begin with.

On 1 June, it is the Government’s intention to re-open primary schools, with pupils due to take exams in 2021 to follow. Meanwhile, the independent and boarding sector seems to have decided to wait until September to resume classroom studies, having invested heavily in the software and remote learning to enable their charges to keep abreast of the highly competitive curricula which will determine future life chances and which social cohorts lead the pack for a generation.

By this stage, it is likely that the poorest students – many of whom will have had no personal access to computers or online learning – are also those whose parents are struggling with the prospect of a return to school before they can be confident of the safety of themselves or their children, especially in the event of a second wave of the epidemic.

This is not likely to be the case for those who can afford to send their children to independent schools and who are also much more likely to have had the benefit of generous domestic accommodation with gardens and other recreational opportunities, as well as safer or remote working options during this period of extreme family stress.

We now know that the burden of infection and death caused by COVID-19 has fallen disproportionately on those of low income and other aspects of disadvantage including more menial occupation and essential work, such as bus and taxi drivers and security work that has brought them in face-to-face contact with those likely to be harbouring the virus.

The consequence of this unequal situation that now faces children is that there is no level playing field of opportunity for children from different social backgrounds and that a gross injustice is brewing for those at a disadvantage, which is likely to undo all the efforts of recent years to ensure that every child matters.


A System in Chaos

When it comes to universities and higher education, the situation is more chaotic. A sector which has been spinning out of control in recent years with grossly over-remunerated chief executives and an increasingly casualised workforce now looks destined to be stranded on a beach of bankruptcy made worse by a flight of high-paying foreign students.

We are looking at a future in which online learning seems set to revolutionise the way in which we approach education at all stages of life. Meanwhile, an alienated and disillusioned generation of students – faced with unmanageable burdens of debt and a future job market desert – are expected to continue to fork out £9,250 a year in course fees and accommodation charges. In return for this, they will only get menus of essays to write and, if they are lucky, a short phone call one-to-one with a tutor from time to time.

In any other industry, this would be regarded as fraud. But there is no evidence of anybody in Government giving any thought as to how best to take this situation and turn it round.

Faced with an academic year which has, to all intents and purposes, been written-off – with uncertainty for months to come – it is time for a re-think. We might start by accepting the inevitability of what is happening, take stock and turn it to our advantage.

We have inherited a grossly unfair educational system in which the dice are loaded in favour of those born to privilege and whose institutions and methods of operating, based on the classroom, have barely changed in hundreds of years. We have long tolerated two parallel tribes of children and young people that have increasingly diverged and for whom ‘to him who has shall be given’ is no quaint anti-deluvian saying. Unemployment looks set to rise sharply as the epidemic runs its course and the economy makes a faltering reboot. How could we do things differently?

In the same way that we have talked for years about sorting out social care, we also periodically hear talk of ‘bringing back national service’, of re-scheduling the school year away from one with its roots in the agricultural economy of the Middle Ages. More recently, after decades of moving backwards on working conditions and aspirations, the prospects of moving to a four-day working week have been highlighted. Surely now is the time to embrace each of these as we forge a new future?

Why not write-off the rest of 2020 and instead embark on a six-month journey of reflection of national learning and of recovery?

We are still in the middle of a lockdown in which the economy has been frozen along with many people’s personal and social development. Is it too much to ask that we dedicate proper time to plotting the way forward and learning lessons rather than just slipping back into old ways?

If we were to phase our way back into the ‘new normal’ between now and 2021, contingent on COVID-19 testing finally becoming available at scale and delivered, together with the personal protection of all those at risk and rebuilding trust with political leaders after the Dominic Cummings fiasco of recent days, we could come out of this with a new social solidarity and sense of purpose.


Reset for Real Change

Imagine if we were now to reset the school and university years to resume fully – in whatever makes sense in the new world – not in September, but in January 2021. If we did that, we could use the next six months in a productive and creative way to put down the foundations of a new order of social justice and a society of all the talents.

After two months of lockdown, we could pilot a six-month youth experience that offers a menu of options – social, environmental and national service of a more traditional kind: outdoor pursuits, personal development, small group learning, bringing together young people from different social backgrounds to heal the social wounds of the ‘no such thing as society’ era. We could draw on our immense national assets of the national parks, outdoor pursuit centres, boarding school facilities, college campuses and halls, drawing on students as part of a domestic Voluntary Service Overseas workforce.

We might even heal the schism between the sciences and the arts, the academic and the practical; and at the same time keep hundreds of thousands of young people gainfully occupied instead of festering on the unemployment register while the economy restarts. And as it does restart, why not introduce a four-day week, ensuring that the new work is fairly spread between all who have talents to offer whilst building on a new volunteering and social activist culture as it emerges from the foundations put down in the youth service?

Historians suggest that previous pandemics have led to far-reaching social change that extends down the generations. So far, in this pandemic there is still little thought from our Government on anything other than a desperation to get the economy moving again. We can do better than that. We can put down the foundations of a cultural and social renaissance.

Now that would be Taking Back Control.


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