What have we learnt about universalism and inequality in education, and what post-crisis policies could improve equality?

Continuing with the theme of updating what we have learnt through the crisis about Beveridge’s five giants today I want to look at education.

I am attempting to do some complex things with this set of posts.

By engaging in the debate about the possible need for more egalitarian policies and politics in the post COVID-19 world I am building on the idea that the COVID-19 experience has – for most people – been a big and powerful experience and searching out whether – as a part of that experience – more people not only feel that inequality has worsened, but that the Government should do something about it.

This has led me to suggest that ‘the centre of public opinion’ has shifted.

If I am correct and it has shifted, then it is that shift which provides the opportunity for new politics and new policy.

This is based upon my core historical belief that you cannot make big policy shifts without that shift in the centre of public opinion.

So how does this apply to education now?

First, did the crisis impact education across society? Very much so. Schools were closed from the beginning of the first lockdown. August saw a national scandal surrounding A-level results that impacted the families of every 18-year-old in the country. Schools returned in September but in January there was confusion when they closed just one day after they were declared safe. Every school child in the country has been impacted. And their parents. And with childcare most of their grandparents.

In an education system which aims at carefully building year on year of learning, pupils have lost most of a year of schooling. Those approaching, or worse in the middle of, exam years have been hit even harder. Now, in February 2021, there is commentary computing the detrimental impact of this loss of education on the future 50 years of employment for millions of children.

Second, did the Covid crisis uncover inequalities in provision and have these been given a lot of public attention? Again, very much so. Inequalities in educational outputs have been an important part of British society for an exceptionally long time. The last 20 years have seen an important improvement in the capability of many schools in providing education for those with disadvantaged backgrounds. More children from poorer backgrounds have been achieving better results than before. There was still some way to go but internally schools were finding ways to increase opportunities.

Closing the schools meant that the institutions that had learnt internally how to improve opportunities, now had to learn how to do it when they were closed. This was a tough ask and very quickly uncovered the impact of wider external inequalities. Good schooling can compensate a great deal but close the school and some of the wider inequalities in our society come crashing in even more strongly.

When you close schools and move education online you immediately expose the inequalities that exist between those children that have easy and everyday access to Wi-Fi enabled IT and those that do not. This much is pretty obvious.

When the Department for Education suggests to schools that they should move education to remote learning – you would expect that a little bell would ring somewhere and remind them that some children will not have the means to do that.

Within a few weeks the DFE began the mantra that they have continued ever since – that they had bought a million computers. Those of us following the development of NHS test and trace recognise this mantra, since we were told that so much money was being spent on all this testing and tracing. As if in some way the spending of the money or a warehouse full of computers was the answer.

What was important for test and trace was whether someone at risk of having COVID-19 would self-isolate. If they did not, however much was spent on testing and tracing would not really matter.

The same was true of distanced learning. Having the input of a warehouse full of computers was only a small step towards the output of distanced learning for all.

Given the public importance of education for society and the importance of schooling for millions of parents, this is an experience of inequality which has gained a lot of publicity. Many more members of the public now know that educational inequality relates directly to digital inequality and we cannot solve the former problem without solving the latter.

As with many other issues of inequality COVID-19 has taught us about, some already knew this. It’s yet another inequality that has been magnified and given massive publicity by the COVID-19 crisis.

In response to this inequality are there public policies post-Covid that the country can develop which will reduce that inequality?

Yes, there are!

Just as there are those who say that feeding children should be the sole responsibility of parents, there will be many who say that the provision of hardware, software and Wi-Fi for pupils should also be. This extension of public responsibility for the education of some children will be politically resisted, not just for reasons of finance but because there is a political belief that such public policy undermines parental responsibility. So, let’s remember that just because we think it is a good idea, it is powerfully contested now and will be for the next few years.

Education, formal and informal, will increasingly over the next few years be carried out by digital means. For the foreseeable future schools will remain physically important as the core experience of formal education. But inside and outside of them children will be using more IT, and crucially the relationship between school and home learning will be changed by the use of more IT. Homework has been and will continue to be important, and it will increasingly be set, carried out and marked through digital means.

Since this is what is going to happen, schools will need the finances, capability and capacity, to know that every pupil has the hardware and software to play a full role in this.

It is specifically this inequality that has been highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis and since the Government – however ineffectually – has said it has tried to do something about it, it will be exceedingly difficult for that same Government to suggest that this is solely an issue for parents.

We have seen that a centralised government DFE (just like a centralised government test and trace) cannot do this. We need to learn from the success of vaccine distribution by distributed local systems of primary care. My GP knows my age and has distributed the vaccine to me. A school will know those children that do and do not have IT enabled homes.

There will be some who will worry about ‘giving’ laptops to those whose parents have not bought them. I grew up in a different world of inequality. At my school, some pupils had lots of books and others did not. The school library and my local library managed to step in and provide me with the books that other pupils owned. Libraries could be essential here.

I am sure there will be some in the current Government who will see this extension of public provision as morally wrong.

They will have two problems.

Over the last year the Government has assumed this is a public responsibility. To say now that it is not is a problem.

The second problem will be the Government’s stated policy of levelling-up poorer areas to the average. Education, after employment, will be one of the major concerns in areas that expect levelling-up to take place. Yet it is likely that, from the summer of 2021 in terms of educational attainment children from poorer areas will have fallen further behind.

For some in Government improving educational attainment in poorer areas will be vital. If we are to level up educational attainment, supporting those children with digital hardware and software will be essential.

My guess is that the newly shifted centre of public opinion will support this.