Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Coronavirus 41 Education

Schools, colleges and universities were closed in March as part of the measures to reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The Reproduction number, R, was successfully reduced to below 1 and, had that situation continued, the disease would have been suppressed and eliminated. But lockdown, always leaky, was lifted too soon, people were allowed to travel into Britain without testing and quarantine, the government encouraged people to go back to work and even bribed them with £10 off the price of meals to go to the pub.
Despite warnings from Sir David King and Independent SAGE that schools should not be reopened until community prevalence was below about one new case per day per million population, it was judged politically expedient to reopen schools and universities in September, irrespective of the virus's spread. New case numbers were running at about two orders of magnitude greater than Sir David had judged dangerous. The R went above 1 again, exponential growth setting in once more and leading to an inevitable but wholy avoidable, disease burden and fatalities. Now there is much talk, and some action, about renewed restrictions, but keeping schools open is regarded by many as a priority.
The Guardian carries an important article by Amelia Hill launching a series about the effects of the pandemic on the younger generation, the Covid Generation. What has become abundantly clear is that schools provide far more than education. They are the central hub of a support network providing care and protection to vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

Schools are what they are, do what they do, as a result of some 150 years of evolution, but there has been little strategic thinking to check whether they are carrying out their tasks efficiently and effectively. Are schools really fit for purpose? What is their purpose?
Take, for instance, free school meals, given to children whose parents and carers fall below some arbitrary threshold of poverty, but not to those the other side of the threshold. If the intention of government (and it would be a fine intention) is to improve the nutrtional health of the nation's children, then free school meals is a crude and inefficient tool. Covid (and a footballer's campaign) has highlighted that children need to eat when schools are closed. Other, better, ways to ensure all well fed are available.
Children need the company of their peers, we are told. If social interaction with other children is the aim then clubs and activities designed to optimise such interaction would deliver the goal better than sitting 30 children, who may not even like many of each other, in a room together.
Schools provide opportunities to identify problems in the home and a refuge for children not being looked after well. A social care system whose primary function was to perform this role would be better placed than schools staffed by teachers who are paid to teach not by social workers for whom all round care is their profession.
Schools teach. By definition. There's been some tinkering around the edges but the basic model of schools has not changed in a century and more. A large number of children are crowded into a room and a teacher engages them in more or less comman tasks. The children emerge taught. Supposedly.
Many other models of education have been tried, tested and found workable and from when the pandemic first emerged it should have been obvious that a model that did not not involve 30 children being sat in a room together for five hours a day was going to be needed. There should have been, in February, a massive effort to put all education programming on broadcast television with online back-up, to enable the school curriculums to be followed. Every child should have been provided with computer and internet connection adequate for the task. Face to face tutorial type meetings and group activities could have been part of the programme, as and when disease prevalence allowed. Existing school buildings could be repurposed in their new role as education hubs, used part time by the children and for other community purposes.
Of course the cost of building a distance learning centred education system would be considerable, but in the context of how much is being spent on other sectors of the economy, it would be manageable. And what if (when) the virus dissappears? Well, we would have created a 'world beating' education system fit for future generations. It will not be wasted.
Ah but, you say, if children did a large part of their education at home instead of going to school how are parents and carers going to go out to work?  Oh, I say, so that's the real purpose of schools; it is a baby-sitting service to enable the workers to go out to work. And that leads us down the path to a restructuring of society, of the place of work and of child care and family and community life. It's a big subjet so I'll leave that for another blog, another time.
Meanwhile, here's a thought. The Open University was established in 1969. In half a century in the future will people look back to the time when the Open School was established?
In May Tim Brighouse and Bob Moon wrote in the Guardian:
Fifty years ago, despite formidable detractors, Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee pushed through the creation of an Open University. Look at the proud success that has been. Now we need to do the same in creating an Open School. Such an institution, even if born of a crisis, could play a major role in raising educational standards for decades to come.
Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC thought it a good idea. He too wrote about it. More recently, Ros Morpeth & Anne Nicholls have also made the case for an Open School.
Let's make it so.


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