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patrick dunn - 03 Jan 2021


As I’m writing this, the situation regarding kids going back to school in England (tomorrow!) is in chaos. Head Teachers and teaching unions are generally sceptical, fearful of a lack of resources and teachers, worried about unprotected, unvaccinated staff, and concerned for the welfare of children and their families as the pandemic accelerates and the health service buckles.

The UK government has made much of their concern that children should get back to school as soon as possible in the new term, in order to prevent long-term harm to their education. It’s a constant theme, and not just from the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson. But it all feels a bit odd. What we know, from decades of research into how children learn, is that, unlike adults, they’re absolutely brilliant at “catching up”; at filling in gaps and holes in their knowledge and understanding…given the right resources and context. Most (not all) children do this naturally and quickly, particularly in structured environments, such as where there is a well-established national curriculum, as we have in the UK. What bugs me a little, is that it’s not as if the current government has ever particularly prioritised, or invested in, education. According to the House of Commons library, between 2011 and 2019, education spending has fallen every year as a percentage of GDP (see note 1 below). Among the first actions of the coalition in 2010 was to cancel the Building Schools for the Future programme, (one of the largest investments in education in the history of the UK), and start winding down a number of newly established institutions such as the National College for Schools Leadership. So why the sudden concern?

We also have to be clear about risks to children and their families. Recent studies (note 2 below) have shown that children can and do carry and spread covid. Although they appear to do this less effectively than adults, bear in mind that at school they are in much closer physical contact with each other than adults, so can represent a significant contributory factor to the spread of the disease. If the evidence is that most kids will catch up on their learning quickly anyway, and will avoid potentially causing further mass infection and deaths if they stay at home…why go to school?

As an online learning specialist, I’m particularly intrigued about why we’re not applying what we’ve learned in this field in any strategic (or indeed coherent) way. A government genuinely concerned about education would have leapt feet first into the well-established, indeed world-leading, British online learning community and industry, and exploited our expertise. Instead, individual schools have been left to scrap around with free tools, youtube, gmail and goodness knows what. It’s a complete mess. Of course, availability of technology in the home is very patchy, but the whole point of blended learning (mixing online learning with face to face learning) is that it can adapt very precisely to individual needs. It would be perfectly feasible for those with access to online resources to learn in one way, while others attend school; or they could alternate weekly…or different subjects could be dealt with in different ways. There are hundreds of viable, proven options. Thirty years of e-learning in large organisations has taught us at lot. This kind of thing isn’t just old hat; it’s decades late in the UK state education sector.

From an educational point of view, none of this makes sense. So what’s going on? Here’s my hypothesis.

The gig economy.

Although it’s difficult to pin down exactly, the UK has roughly 5 times as many gig economy workers as the rest of western Europe (at around 9.6%; the EU average is 2% - note 3). Many of these gig economy workers are in services that are close to essential: supply chains, support services, warehousing, delivery, and so on. Without these workers, many critical functions in the economy will falter. But more important still, if "gig economy parents" – just under 5 million workers – have to stay home to look after kids, and thereby stop earning, a significant amount of cash stops circulating in the economy. This is deep recession-causing stuff.

Cost of child care.

The UK has the second highest cost of child care in the world (source: OECD – note 4 below). While it’s normal in many countries, such as Canada, Australia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania, to subsidise child care heavily (and sometimes as in Malta, 100%), in the UK we don't. One calculation I came across suggested that a couple with two children earning the average wage would spend 60% of their gross household income on childcare (note 5 below). So even if your gig economy job pays enough for you to survive on (which typically it won't), you won't be able to go to work and pay somebody else to look after your kids.

Collapse in funding of childrens' services.

In any society there are vulnerable children who need special services. In the UK, funding for these has all but collapsed over the last decade. For example, in 2019, councils in England had to spend more than £700 million more on childrens' services than their budgets allowed. Since 2013, government funding for the Early Intervention Grant was cut by close to a billion pounds. The “Every Child Matters” initiative, set up in 2003 partly as a result of the death of Victoria Climbié, has been progressively wound down. Not surprisingly, given austerity policies and the collapse of childrens’ services, between 2009 and 2019, the number of child protection inquiries increased 139%. (note 6 below).

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So, in short, schools have become free creches, for an economy that can't support effective parenthood. The government’s push to get large numbers of children into school has nothing at all to do with education, and everything to do with trying to get the wheels of a dysfunctional society and economy turning. Covid has cast a much-needed light on the deep inequality, poverty, and insecure employment that characterises a country that has never needed change more badly.