In the third in our ‘No going back’ series, this feature considers how schools have been affected by coronavirus, and what kind of future school system we need.
Safety, wellbeing and learning first - not profit!

Safety, wellbeing and learning first – not profit!   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

We need a socialist education programme

Even before the call for a ‘new normal’ in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, the UK education system has been crying out for change.

The Department for Education has said that “No child should be disadvantaged by the Covid-19 outbreak”. But it is not the virus that has disadvantaged these children.

Education in the UK is class-based; headteachers in private schools have recognised the huge advantage that their students have over students in state-funded schools. Class sizes are so small in private schools that they haven’t had to introduce social distancing measures – they have carried on as they are. What is good enough for the elite and for those who can afford it should be good enough for everyone.

Teachers try to make their subject engaging and meaningful. However, the reality is that what is demanded of students is often seen as abstract and irrelevant.

As it stands, the education system is a ‘one-size-fits-all model’, with insufficient flexibility to meet the needs of individuals who do not fit the model. In secondary schools, the mind-numbing rules and rituals that students have to follow every day are just a preparation for a life of adherence to more rules and subjugation. ‘Student Voice’ is tokenistic: it is patronising and gives the impression that what students have to say will make a real difference to what happens in schools.

The introduction of the new-style GCSEs in 2015, with the first examinations taking place in 2017, saw an increase in anxiety and depression among school students, because of the increased emphasis on academic achievement. Most teachers believe that the focus on exams has become disproportionate to the overall wellbeing of student.

The cancellation of the GCSE (and A Level) examinations this year, because of the Covid-19 lockdown, meant that end-of-course outcomes of students rely solely on teacher assessment of evidence produced by students over the course of the year.

Adapting to the current crisis has shown what is possible. With more thought put into what students learn (and how they learn best), reflecting the real needs of communities locally and nationally, schools could become facilitators in organising learning, rather than providers. This change in emphasis could parallel socialist change in society.

Schools need to be more accountable to the communities they are there to serve: having elected headteachers will help to achieve this. The governing bodies of schools or the board of trustees of multi-academy trusts are a pale reflection of what could be achieved under direct control and management of schools by education workers, local authority representatives and representatives from the local community. The pay gap between the lowest and highest paid in the sector should be drastically reduced. This programme would make a real difference to the sector, opening up education to reflect the needs of society.

David Kaplan, Teacher

Covid crisis exposes Tory hypocrisy

One of the most nauseating sights and sounds of the lockdown has been Tory politicians justifying their attempts to fully reopen schools. They have the barefaced cheek to argue that they are concerned that vulnerable children will be left at risk if schools don’t open.

What hypocrites they are! Do they really think that school staff and everyone working with young people will forget the last ten years of austerity and the devastating impact that has had on the lives and life chances of young people? Do they think that we will forget the impact of millions of pounds worth of cuts to local authorities that have stripped away children’s services to a bare minimum? Do they think we have forgotten the hundreds of young people with mental health problems, and their families left without support through Tory cuts to ‘Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services’?

Labour and Tory critics of the Johnson government have cited the need to commandeer libraries and youth clubs for extra space to teach while observing social distancing. But, just like the failures over ‘track and trace’ systems in healthcare, these calls have exposed the devastation and fragmentation wrought by years of Tory and Labour privatisation.

When local authorities look for spare capacity in the community, they realise there isn’t much left – so much of it has been closed! Since 2010, 600 youth clubs and 773 libraries have been closed. There are 710 fewer public playing fields. Under the pressure of excessive workload, 40% of teachers who qualified in 2010 have since left the profession.

Do the Tories not think that workers know how they have driven down wages and living standards under the guise of austerity and “we’re all in it together”? Of how austerity has led to a transfusion of wealth from the poor to the super-rich? The link between living standards and educational attainment is accepted by all but the most entrenched Tory politicians.

In the last ten years the rise of the gig economy, zero-hour contracts and minimum wage pay has meant that some parents are forced to take two, three or more jobs just to put food on the table. In Hull, for example, 40% of all households are calculated to have total incomes below the official poverty level.

Parents are doing their best for their children, but there are limits. For some parents, work means that they cannot be around to support their children with homework or even to make sure that they are safe.

A feature of the recent period has been young girls missing school because their families have to make a choice between food, paying for heating and buying sanitary products – so called ‘period poverty’. Financial pressures on families bring other pressures. Family break up and even domestic violence have also been affected by Tory austerity. The number of children in care has skyrocketed in recent times.

Instead of the leaders of the labour movement, it took a Premier League football player to expose the reality facing working-class families under Tory austerity and welfare cuts. When Marcus Rashford wrote, “the system was not built for families like mine to succeed”, his words reverberated out into society because they chimed with millions of working-class kids’ lived experiences. The hypocrisy of Tory concern for vulnerable children was laid bare by their initial refusal to fund school dinners over the summer.

So the next time a Tory minister tries to pretend that they are concerned about vulnerable children, don’t throw something at the TV in anger. Get active in the Socialist Party to get rid of the Tories and their rotten capitalist system that creates vulnerable children in the first place.

Nancy Taaffe and Mick Whale

Child-centred not test-driven education

The Covid-19 crisis has shone a spotlight on the crisis in our education system, especially the early years and primary sector.

Children in the UK start more formal education earlier than in most other developed countries. Their class sizes are larger, and their classrooms are smaller. Huge funding cuts and staffing cuts all add to the problems.

Since the development of our modern schooling model, governments (including Labour) have completely failed to listen to education experts about what the requirements are for the building blocks for good child development. The valuable work on play in the curriculum, that was developed from the Plowden report in 1967, has still not been implemented.

We must ask ourselves why the mental health of our young people is at an all-time low? Testing and more testing saturates, distorts and ‘infects’ the curriculum. The continued pressure on the curriculum for more formal methods of teaching, especially at an early age, is toxic.

The opportunities for imaginative, play-based and creative activities are being squeezed out of the curriculum, disregarding how young children develop and what sort of experiences they need to harness before moving on.

I know schools where painting and creative activities are rare, teachers forced to concentrate on a more rigid curriculum which stultifies rather than invigorates children’s enquiring minds.

When I started teaching over 28 years ago, teachers worked together to create a curriculum that all children could relate to, using the local area and resources. We shared books not just isolated passages. Children worked in mixed-ability groups, getting extra support where needed.

We learnt about punctuation in context, but we encouraged children to discuss and use their imagination, to be excited about learning new things, and to not be afraid if they didn’t get it right first time. Teachers were more trusted. We worked hard ensuring that the curriculum was designed for our children, not a ‘one-size-fits-all!’ Over time, the trust has been stripped away.

Teachers want their pupils to develop the skills and learning that will enable them to achieve, and to support them in that journey. The freedom to develop a curriculum that meets the needs of the pupil has been taken away from them.

For many working-class children, their experience of school is increasingly one of pressure. With over 4.2 million children living in poverty, schools should be a haven – an opportunity to thrive and to feel valued as well as exploring and learning.

It is imperative that as, and when, children return to school, education be very different. We will need to step up the fight to develop a curriculum that is child centred instead of test driven.

Jane Nellist, Coventry NEU

September – no full return until it’s safe

Boris Johnson has announced that schools in England will be returning “with full attendance” in September. This follows a sustained propaganda campaign from the media and pro-capitalist politicians designed to put pressure on schools to reopen as soon as possible.

But it will be impossible to run full capacity schools in a safe manner. It would mean either scrapping all social-distancing restrictions, against all independent scientific advice, or somehow finding more staff and infrastructure. The latter is impossible given the timeframe and clear lack of willingness from the government to properly fund education.

The battle for the safe reopening of schools is far from over. At the start of the pandemic, the National Education Union took a strong stance by setting out ‘five tests’ that need to be met before schools can return. These tests remain as relevant as ever, especially given the current lack of a functioning tracking and tracing system.

The National Education Union needs to make clear that it will not support any wider reopening in September that is based on unsafe conditions. Given the danger of a second wave in the autumn, it is essential that schools are closed as soon as a case of Covid-19 is found in the school community, to allow cleaning, testing and tracking to take place.

Schools have lost the funding that previously allowed for teaching assistants and support workers to help the most vulnerable, meaning the capacity to ensure these students have a carefully managed return to school does not exist. Cuts to council services have often forced schools to play the role of social workers too, meaning they will be under immense pressure come September.

It seems likely that some form of ‘blended learning’ will be needed in September – balancing home learning with contact time in school. Teachers will need to be given the time and equipment to do this, and proper training on how to manage it effectively and safely. The government needs to ensure that disadvantaged students have access to laptops and internet at home, something they have already promised and not adequately delivered.

The government has suggested that schools should open over the summer to help students ‘catch up’. Not only is this a breach of teachers’ conditions, it will also damage the mental health of young people. Instead, the government should properly fund summer school provision that focuses on general wellbeing and learning through enjoyment – something that existed before the cuts.

Rather than spending money on privately run tuition, supply teachers that have desperately struggled for work over the lockdown should be employed directly through properly funded local authority pools.

When schools do safely return, we need a focus on student welfare and socialisation, not a high-pressured academic catch up and exam preparation. Sats tests should be scrapped and the curriculum suspended to allow teachers to focus on helping students readjust to a positive learning culture.

James Ellis, teacher

The Socialist Party says:

  • Put safety and wellbeing first. National Education Union must stand firm on demanding the ‘five tests’ are met
  • Invest in education. Reverse school cuts, reduce class sizes
  • Value school staff. End performance pay, win national pay scales and workload limits for all
  • End academies. Bring all schools, including private schools, under democratic local control
  • For child-centred not test-driven education. End Sats tests and league tables in England
  • For an anti-racist curriculum that stresses the need for working-class unity