One of the most crucial areas of concern throughout the past two Covid years has been the impact of the pandemic on children’s education. After a very disrupted 2021, pupils at all levels of learning this week are still facing continued uncertainty about the means of receiving lessons, and the mechanics of attending classes. For its part the government is gritting its teeth in the face of staggering increases in infection rates, and is determined everyone must return to institution-based education.
Securing the future of our children is the mantra, but we all know there are deep fiscal drivers behind this position – children back in schools means parents can be sent back to work, and the economy can begin to recover. So there is intense, perhaps even unreasonable, pressure on everyone within the education sector to get their classrooms open and the school year started.
This is supported by a belief that younger people are less susceptible to Covid, and therefore exposing millions of children and young people to a full day of close proximity activities in confined conditions is a relatively low risk activity.
Whilst this may be true, it highlights one of the greatest confusions about the whole Covid pandemic – that personal immunity and protection = no danger is present. (It’s worth reiterating that vaccination protects the recipient from the illness, but doesn’t in any way prevent the recipient from carry the infection around with them and passing it on to others. Immunity and transmissibility are two very different scenarios.)
In forcing a mass return to classroooms right now, children and schools could well act as superspreader conduits, carrying the virus from home to school, to others and on to their families. It’s quite true that the children themselves may be at lowest risk, but those at home they come into contact with, and who in turn socialise with others, may be far more vulnerable to serious illness.
The term ‘lowest risk’ is also entirely less convincing than ‘low risk’, and there are worrying signs coming from America that young children and teenagers are falling seriously ill with Omicron in increasingly significant numbers.
In terms of the cost to learning outcomes, it is estimated that across 2020 Covid-induced school closures in England resulted in pupils losing around 40 days of on site education. Whilst online learning and home support may have helped to offset some of this, we have been hearing concerns that any continued disruption is going to have a detrimental effect on children’s career development and future prospects. This is primarily an economic argument being pushed by a government acutely conscious that there are eye-watering future pandemic debts to be paid that will need to be serviced by a very substantial tax-payer base. The thinking is that fewer children in school today will mean fewer children in highly paid, highly taxable jobs tomorrow.
Such flawed thinking is not only dangerous to public health, but makes numerous blunt and inaccurate assumptions about both the purpose of education, and the nature of the school environment. In Catholic education circles focus has always been centred fully on the development of the human person – yes in terms of building their qualifications and career prospects, but more fundamentally in shaping the way a child will see the world throughout adulthood, and how they might interact with it for the common good.
Looking at social media and reading press releases over the past two years I’ve been hugely encouraged by the way that our Catholic schools have dealt with the challenges of Covid. Regular communication and concern for the mental wellbeing of pupils and students has been paramount, and many teachers have been brilliantly innovative in using the resources and tools they have available to continue their vocation to nurture young minds.
There is also an assumption going round that children based at home have been somehow deprived of emotional and mental development. In rare cases this may be true, but it reflects an outdated and inaccurate assumption that the family home is somehow deficient and can’t provide the stimulation that a school offers. Only the state has the wisdom to educate, and it won’t tolerate any old-fashioned Catholic notions that the family will always be the prime educator of children.
That said, our schools could well be excellent places to entrust our children to, if only our educators weren’t being so strangled by the machinery of the current system. Across the last few decades the school timetable and curriculum has become a desperately clogged pressure cooker of deadlines, assessments, tests and expectations. Teaching has in many respects fallen a poor second to performance and results.
This is why any gap in the school year is so catastrophic. These days schools and teachers are all too often so weighed down by educational mechanisms and the paperwork they demand, that pure teaching is often just rare moments of light glimpsed amidst the furious pace of an unrelenting syllabus. Above that, school heads and senior managers are being subjected to ever more stringent and time-consuming impositions on their time, as the government becomes obsessively fixated with measuring performance and results. In fact, there seems to be so much monitoring and assessing of schools and teachers going on these days that we’re in serious danger of forgetting pupils, and ignoring the reason why schools exist.
Whatever this coming year hands us in terms of teaching the next generations, one of the hardest challenges is going to be unpicking the intensely inflexible and complex learning and examination system that successive governments have created. At the outbreak of the pandemic we were woefully unprepared, and many young people facing critical exams were simply abandoned to bureaucracy and flawed assessments. In five month’s time another generation of our children will be hitting the exam tables and no-one seems to have any proposals as to how we’re going to navigate these young people through it. The government seems committed to leaving old, outworn and crumbling mechanisms in place, and is content to let schools pick up the tab and work out for themselves how they’re going to repair the damage and get pupil’s learning back on track.
The fact that the government seems drawn towards a longer school day as the preferred solution illustrates just how naive they are. Teachers are already at exhausted and at breaking point, their mental health has deteriorated, and many have left the profession. To add an even greater workload would just present children with tutors even less capable of delivering what is being required of them.
Before the outbreak of the pandemic there were serious and radical debates going on about the whole nature and structure of the education system in England and Wales. We were beginning to question the validity of exams that favoured those with good memories yet did little for those with creative minds, and there was even talk about more flexible and imaginative approaches to the school day and what could be provided.
It’s commendable that our government is concerned that the children of today should enjoy success and share prosperity tomorrow, but there needs to be an honest admission that the current system of education is largely broken and needs a complete renewal.
In some respects the potential fallout from the pandemic on young people’s education offers the perfect opportunity to remodel the system and create learning paths that are far more attuned to modern-day needs and expectations, and the highly changed world that young people are likely to find themselves growing up. Ironically, though logically, rebuilding the education system to give young people opportunities for the future would would deliver those much-needed taxpayers, but sadly there are few signs that our legislators have the bravery or imagination to take on the task. We can only pray for our educators, and for our children.
Joseph Kelly is the founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk