The government is being very coy now about whether schools should return at all after the holidays and what will likely be a full national lockdown, or at least the imposition of Tier Fours across most of the country. This, just one week after threatening schools and their local authorities with legal action if they dared to stay closed after Coronorvirus took hold of their populations.
This is how it is with this government; they ring out rigid, unthinking mantras like ‘the schools must stay open’ and ‘we cant cancel Christmas’ only to recant when the situation demands more flexibility.
Their defence is ‘ events dear boy, events’. But when it comes to schools the government has consistently flouted one of its foremost principles to ‘follow the science’, as study after study has been showing that schools and children are major vectors of the disease.
The lockdowns that don’t shut the schools tend to fail and it is because schools – particularly secondary schools but primary also seem to have a role – are close knit, enclosed, communities that bring people together in very large numbers. Look at disastrous secondary attendance rates in secondary schools in tier 3 schools. This vector has started knocking out primary school teachers who have teenage children.
In terms of ‘he science’ schools have always been more dangerous than non-essential retail and pubs. But, the social consequences, it is argued, are too great for disadvantaged children stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.
It certainly is true that online learning tended to work best with those middle class children with kit and connectivity and engaged parents supervising them. Yet It would seem that the government’s attempts to ‘level-up’ the playing field by providing laptops to those that need them has fallen, say heads, woefully short, and the programme seems now to have been cut considerably.
Even if they got the kit, the connectivity isn’t necessarily there, nor might be the motivation to the same extent as their middle class peers. Therefore, the argument goes, schools have to stay open and spread the disease …and also, by the way, we have to stick to exams, even heavily compromised ones, because ’we must have exams’.
So fixated is the government on their dogma that they have asked schools to become mass-testing centres, using untrained volunteers to administer and process complex tests which would still miss 50 per cent of highly infectious cases. There must be a better, more creative way of recognising that schools are major vectors if the virus and that not schooling the under-privileged is too high a social price to pay.
So here is our Modest Proposal! Why don’t schools, when they do return, send home to study those children who have the kit, connectivity and support at home and keep the ones that don’t at school! Or, use Pupil Premium pupils as the group that stays in schools, with some exceptions either way.
In this way the children that most need direct contact with teachers and a formal support structure the most – the less advantaged children ( read working-class) – would get privileged access to teacher resources and could even make up some of the ground they have lost
It would also, of course, provide a lower density of human beings, more easily socially distanced, in a safer environment.
Those middle-class children with the kit and connectivity are also most likely to have parents in white collar jobs and able to more easily supervise children at home…although after 14 is close supervision really required? Children could form study bubbles with one or two close friends at home – perhaps congregated around the child with the best facilities.
There could even be a little social engineering here – with less well-off children studying at home or in street hubs alongside their better-off peers. It would need careful negotiation but if mixed-ability teaching can work in school, why not at home
Another benefit of this Modest Proposal is that teachers could discern from the residual groups at school, those most able to benefit from access to upgraded kit and connectivity, and so target scarce resources at these children.
‘Oh, but wont the poor children stuck at school feel stigmatised?’ Maybe, but any child with a special social or learning need’ is treated differently and is aware of this , from free school meals onwards. It is simply a way of realistically recognising the social and digital divide that exists, and doing something about it. It is hard-nosed, positive discrimination.
Once a week ….possibly even a Saturday – children working at home could meet their teachers for small group or personal tutoring – grammar and private schools study on Saturday after all. Or, it could be an afternoon or a day when the school-based children have a day off – one day off is a lot easier to manage than every day out of school.
There are two other reasons why this Modest Proposal is worth considering. Headteachers wouldn’t have to ask permission to do this from a government trapped in its own red-lines and dogmas – schools are technically open and just managing learning in a more Covid-secure way.
Secondly, it could become a permanent feature of our schooling, with very positive impacts for children with less cultural and financial capital at their disposal. On the other hand, many middle-class children, the researchers tell us, have enjoyed and benefitted from the freedom and independence that distance learning has given them.
Are learning communities really so reliant on rule-bound congregations enclosed – for some children, imprisoned – by bricks and mortar? This Modest Proposal could allow us to re-configure education away from the current one-size-fits-all provision and enable it to correspond more closely in future to the social and personal needs of individual children.
Howard Sharron is the publisher of TeachingTimes