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Education beyond the pandemic

Time for a rebalancing of the attainment-inclusion axis at the heart of our schooling system?

Lessons From Lockdown author Tony Breslin argues that a rebalancing of our education system in favour of inclusion-focused strategies is necessary if we are to enable children and young people to develop the self-confidence, resilience and character that they will need in the post-pandemic world.

“We need to balance the needs of the education system with the needs of the economy” opines a caller to a national daily phone-in show as I sit down to draft this blog. The point is a fair one but highlights one of the many false binaries that have characterised the debates about lockdown. While we might think of the economy as a series of ‘sectors’, the reality, as I argue in my forthcoming book Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 (Routledge, 2021), is that society is joined up. The “pubs or schools” debate that has dominated the headlines this year illustrates the point: the children of those who work in hospitality and catering will be impacted should a cost of the virus be the loss of their parents’ jobs, and unemployment, and the socio-economic disadvantage that swiftly follows, is a driver of educational under-achievement; lives and livelihoods, as the former Marks and Spencer CEO, Stuart Rose neatly puts it, are intrinsically intertwined. Herein lies the complexity of exiting lockdown, or as common parlance has it, “learning to live with the virus”.

University graduates

Another binary, one that will be familiar to many readers of this blog, for it long predates the pandemic, is that between achievement, or rather attainment, and inclusion. This is a tension oft denied by both policymakers and practitioners; the denial is based on a simple objective: get everybody to achieve and nobody will be excluded. Of course, if everybody did achieve, there would be no exclusion and, indeed, no hierarchy but we know it doesn’t work that way, not least because education systems operate as the pre-selectors of destiny. Thus, attempts to broaden inclusion through, for instance, curricular and qualifications reform are painted as ‘dumbing down’. Moreover, the pursuit of ‘rigour’ is postulated on the need to (seemingly continually) raise standards. Thus, teacher assessment, coursework and modular examinations (much more accessible to reluctant learners, whatever their ability level and whether they are children or adults) are sacrificed at the altar of attainment, while more inclusive approaches are derided as offering “prizes for all” and, therefore, the enemy of excellence. That recent staple of education debates, that “too many young people are going to university nowadays”, is offered as evidence of a loss of such excellence, as if more education could be a bad thing. Notice that such a claim almost inevitably emerges, usually in impeccable English, from the voice of somebody who one suspects has been to university, whose parents went to university, and whose children and grandchildren are going to university, or will do in the fullness of time. They are talking about other people’s children.

The pursuit of excellence does not, therefore, build inclusion for all. Rather, it involves the implicit acceptance that some children will be left behind. Here, the recent history of educational reform in England is instructive. Thus, from their different starting points, Kenneth Baker in the late 1980s and David Blunkett in the late 1990s sought to address the shortcomings of what they saw, with some justification, as an underachieving education system, Baker through re-engineering this system (the National Curriculum, Ofsted, Performance Management and the Local Management of Schools) and Blunkett through a set of focused target driven strategies (the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, Excellence in Cities and the Standards Fund). The gains, especially in the first two New Labour terms were significant and initially delivered at speed, but the plateauing of the impact of these reforms was inevitable and, arguably, over the past decade, these efforts have become increasingly counter-productive. They manifested themselves in crises of teacher and school leader recruitment and retention, the generation and consolidation of sub-cohorts – marked out by gender, ethnicity, social class, housing tenure and area of residence – who routinely and intergenerationally underachieve, and a set of schools, recently defined (by Ofsted no less) as “stuck schools”, or as one focus group member described them to me a year or so ago, “career-damagingly difficult” schools.  In short, the price of the increasing success of sixty, seventy, eighty per cent of our young people, has been the exclusion of the remaining forty, thirty, twenty per cent. Attainment-first strategies have proved successful for many (and, by any measure, our young people today achieve far more than they did when I entered teaching in the late 1980s, and far, far more than during my secondary school years in the preceding decade) but they have done so at the price of locking a minority into a self-perpetuating cycle of underachievement.

As I remark in Lessons From Lockdown, the pandemic didn’t create these patterns of inclusion and exclusion, or the chasm between them, but it has laid them bare for more to see, and in so doing it has caused many to reflect on whether this is how we want society to be. Educationally, we could take another path. We could make the inclusion of all, rather than the attainment of most, our priority. We could say that the first GCSE of the disadvantaged and excluded child is more important than the tenth GCSE of the advantaged and included child – and pivot teaching and financial resources accordingly. We could argue that while a broad, challenging, invigorating and creative curriculum ought to be an entitlement for all, ten GCSEs at Level 8 or 9 constitutes not a broad education, but the ability to succeed at one kind of learning and one kind of assessment. We could argue that we need to develop the qualities of innovation, character, resilience, collaboration and kindness, and that we need a social curriculum capable of delivering this. And we could argue that the vocational curriculum should not be something that young people fall into after academic failure, but something that many aspire to – a professional route that is as attractive to those who succeed in the academic domain as those who struggle.

None of this is easy or straightforward, and none of it can or should be achieved overnight, but the system shock that the pandemic has delivered might just offer us an opportunity to begin such work. In researching Lessons From Lockdown, we closed our discussions with interviewees and focus group participants with two questions: (1) What can’t you wait to get back to? and (2) What can’t you wait to leave behind? Perhaps we should hold this conversation more broadly; perhaps a rebalancing of our system in terms of achievement and inclusion might be one outcome of these reflections.

Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 is published on January 18th but you can pre-order the book now, at a 20% discount, by clicking on this link.

A teacher by profession and former Chief Examiner at GCSE and Principal Examiner at A level, Dr Tony Breslin is Director at Breslin Public Policy Limited, Chair at Bushey Primary Education Federation, a Trustee at Adoption UK, and a regular media commentator on educational issues. @UKpolicywatch

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