Normally around this time of year, Alice Cooper’s iconic song “School’s Out for Summer” captured the mood music for school kids. With exams over, it was a time for celebration as the summer break beckoned.
These lyrics have an entirely different meaning for the ‘Class of 2020’. The COVID-19 health emergency has meant schools have been out since March. While some may have initially celebrated the cancellation of exams and embraced working from home, there is certainly no joy as far as what is happening with primary and secondary education. It remains unclear whether a return in the fall will be for one day per week or an alternate week basis. Or indeed, whether school will back in for summer. The prime minister has promised that a “massive catch-up operation” for pupils will be revealed this week. Locally, the education minister has suggested some pupils may return on 17 August. These are measures to deal with what could be described as an unfolding educational emergency.
The past few months have been characterised by a series of COVID-19 related emergencies. We had the health emergency resulting from the pandemic which has been receding in recent weeks. The unfolding economic emergency is evident with the collapse in output and surge in unemployment.
On both fronts the policy response has been swift with a “whatever it takes / whatever it costs” approach adopted. Radical measures have been implemented with eye-watering sums of money thrown at the problem. More recently, the focus is shifting away from life support to recovery with the reopening of a wide range of businesses. The educational emergency though hasn’t to date had a huge amount done to mitigate it; though it could actually be the emergency that leaves the longest and deepest scars on our society.
So whilst our young people were impacted the least by the health emergency, it will be they who are most impacted by the educational version, and who need us to now significantly shift our focus to deal with the crisis that is looming. Indeed, you could be forgiven for asking who is fighting the corner for our young people. Lobbyists across the UK for a wide range of business sectors have been more than earning their money with their very effective campaigns to represent their members. But who is lobbying for the 350,000 pupils in Northern Ireland not currently being provided with an adequate education? And what can be done on their behalf?
At the minute, you can go to a garden centre, get fitted for a new suit, or buy a new car, but you can’t go to school. It’s really only now that we’re starting to see politicians taking up this issue in any big way. There is a lot of talk about how the hospitality sector will be the last to open. It won’t be, schools will be. This fact, coupled with a lack of adequate childcare, will act as a huge drag on our economic recovery.
So what is the crisis? At a global level 1.5 billion children have had their education disrupted during lockdown. For learning to continue in this scenario, internet access is key. On that basis, the UN estimates that half a billion children have lost access to education during lockdown. In Northern Ireland, schools closed in March, exams have been cancelled and estimated grades are to be awarded. Learning has switched to online (for some) with children swelling the ranks of those ‘working from home’. Despite best endeavours, every one of the 350,000 pupils in Northern Ireland’s schools and nurseries will have suffered as a result of the pandemic. The only question is – to what degree?
Last week, one MP warned of “an epidemic of educational poverty” and a growing digital divide due to the ongoing school closures. Inequality of educational outcomes is a huge issue following COVID-19. Anecdotally there has been a wide range in the quality and quantity of work being issued by schools and undertaken by children. Those children from better off backgrounds with access to the space, technology and family support to continue their studies during the period of school closure will be at a significant advantage to many children who don’t. Nevertheless, even they will have fared less well to the counterfactual of being in school. Think of those young people in households without internet access and / or no computers. For pupils today, getting an education is something of a lottery.
Inequality of educational outcomes was an issue before COVID-19 struck and this gap is set to widen. Just as we have seen a range of freak economic indicators in recent months it is likely we will see a spike in educational underachievement. Crucially the damage isn’t just educational; it’s also emotional, mental and psychological. We have heard lots of big shocking numbers on the health and economic side. But when a post-mortem is done, it will be on the education side that we might gulp loudest when we see the statistics. The cost of this education underachievement will continue to grow until there is a return to the pre-crisis timetable and teacher-pupil facetime (real, not virtual). Even then, the damage accumulated thus far will have to be addressed.
How successful we are in flattening the underachievement curve will depend on what actions are taken. We need politicians to do more to communicate the scale of the potential damage in order to get people to act, the way they communicated the potential worst case scenario of the health emergency. We also need to leverage the private sector the way we did to plug the PPE and ventilator deficit.
During the health emergency, the NHS brought back retired doctors and nurses and retrained those whose skills had lapsed. Medical students and nurses were fast tracked to the frontline. Do we need to do something similar within education? We will need an army of classroom assistants / ‘junior teachers’ to provide support (online & physical) focusing on Maths and English to embark on a massive educational catch-up programme to fill in the educational potholes (and perhaps craters) that have developed. Remember there will be a surge in unemployment (particularly those in their twenties) so is there a role for unemployed graduates to help get the learning deficit down in the education emergency?
How radical should we be? Will we see a lengthening of the school day by 30-60 mins to claw back the time lost? Should we simply let a significant proportion of pupils repeat the year? The most educationally vulnerable must be shielded from the worst effects of this educational crisis.
The scale of the challenge facing education is huge. A “whatever it takes / whatever it costs” approach needs to be adopted urgently to undo the damage to 350,000 pupils’ education. A taskforce needs to be established to roll-out a three-year plan of catch-up and to target the deficiencies. Education is seen as a long-term investment but addressing this education crisis cannot be put on the long finger. School needs to be in soon.
Alice Cooper was known as the ‘Godfather of Shock Rock’. We need a shock and awe policy response to deal with the situation our young people currently find themselves in. If we don’t, the mother of all educational crises and a weak economic recovery awaits.
This article appeared in the Irish News – 16th June 2020.