It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Everything is harder during lockdowns – education is difficult to deliver, support facilities and services are restricted, attendance is disrupted, remote access is fraught with problems, and disruption acts as an enemy of learning.
In schools, Sutton Trust research tells us that 40 per cent of middle-class children are undertaking over five hours of schoolwork a day, compared to 26 per cent of those in working class households. Parents on lower incomes are more likely than those on higher incomes to be finding the second lockdown more difficult than first (28 per cent vs 15 per cent). And teachers at the least affluent state schools are likelier than those in more affluent state schools to report a lower standard of work than expected – 55 per cent vs 41 per cent.
That we don’t have solid evidence on the differential impact of the restrictions on learning in higher education says more about the way we run universities and support students’ progress than it does about the absence or otherwise of a differential impact.
Because our education system, at multiple levels, is both about sorting and learning gain, it all presents two interlocking problems. One is how we fairly assess children and students given the impacts of restrictions have not been felt equally or equitably across society. The other is what we do about overall levels of learning loss which we might reasonably assume matter if we wish our society to be educated.
The big solution in higher education when discussing “no detriment” seems to be about focussing on “safety nets” instead – giving people longer to reach the standard, and giving people more attempts to reach the standard. So if taking longer over it or giving people more goes is the solution, that gives us three macro-level options for education more generally.
Option A – the default, business as usual option – would be to push everyone out of the door “on time” having issued some kind of fudge. In primary schools that involves sticking our fingers in our ears and cancelling SATS. In secondary it means fudging GCSEs and A levels in a way that eases but doesn’t solve both the fairness and learning loss issues. In universities it means gaslighting students over university “delivery” (for fear of triggering fee refunds) and rewriting both degree outcome statements and history to get people out of the door and into the labour market.
There are huge problems with this approach, which stack up like cars in a pile-up the longer the lockdowns go on – but a major overlooked issue is the way in which they dump the detritus on to the next stage. Primary schools will be expected to pick up and solve both the inequalities and harms arising from early years. And so on and so on, until we get to beleaguered employers in the middle of a deep recession having to pick up and solve both the inequalities and harms arising from whichever stage of education they tend to recruit from.
If nothing else, there is a clear and present danger that universities will underestimate and underfund the support needed to address the problems presented by the intake of 2021. That seems to be a much more pressing educational issue than packing the Russell Group even tighter, destabilizing the rest of the rest of the sector in the process – which will mean no part of the sector will realistically have the time or capacity to address the issues we’re about to receive.
Option B would be to fully fund and repeat everyone’s year – from early years right through to PGR (although given the year we’ve had, it’s more like “peat” the year). It would be expensive (although not as directly expensive as it sounds), generate major challenges around supply into the labour market, and there would be global competition issues. But who knows if it would be cheaper in practice than unemployment. The biggest challenge is that we’d need a major investment in early years capacity – but one that we would end up being wise to hold on to.
Anyway, it’s not going to happen. So Option C would be a fully funded halfway house. Here the Government would announce a bold and detailed plan for a(n early) summer of learning. A major national educational recovery effort would be convened for the post-Easter education period, and teachers and students of every type would be funded and supported to engage in teaching and learning until Mid August. Academic year 2021/22 would then begin in November.
It would give us time – not enough, for sure – but some time to enable students to meet the standards we’re still clinging to throughout the system, and time to begin to work out how each “receiving stage” of education and employment might support the students or graduates they’re about to get.
As I say, I suspect that Option B – the “Bobby Ewing in the Shower” repeat the year option – is simply too dramatic, difficult, expensive and complex, and I also suspect that several of our competitor countries will end up doing the third “summer of learning” option.
Sadly, my other guess is that DfE and its ministers have neither the imagination nor political capital to lead it or get it funded properly, so we’ll end up with a C minus. It’ll be like Option C but announced six weeks too late, will involve the private sector unnecessarily, and will somehow end up making the inequalities even worse.