Lengthening the school day, shorterning the summer holidays: these and other ideas for reform were already under consideration at the Education Department and within government.
But they would not be up for assessment now, since there would have been no Collins Review to take a view on them, were it not for the pandemic.
As schools return today, it is worth pondering that development because, as with childrens’ future, so with much else. The Coronavirus is likely to speed up change that was set to happen anyway.
For example, there will be more working from home; so less commuting; so less need for firms to maintain big, expensive offices in big, expensive cities; which in turn will have a knock-on effect on where people live, on their jobs, and on their transport needs.
All this is a matter of scale. The “old normal” may turn out to be more resilient than some expect – and it may not. Either way, children, who are among the first people released early from this lockdown, will also be among the first people affected by change.
The context in which it will happen is the last year’s story of lost schooling, cancelled exams, teacher assessment and, especially for children in the earlier years, a loss of companionship, opportunities to make and keep friends, and socialisation.
The bleakest effect of all this on mental health and personal development are, inevitably, on the victims of what Raghib Ali, a government adviser on aspects of Covid-19, called – writing on this site – “systemic classism”.
In short, they are poorer children attending worse schools. Which are less likely to teach well online. And whose pupils are less likely to be online in any event.
Most people feel sorry for children who have now undergone three lockdowns…if only in some cases because they also feel sorry for themselves.
For while many of us are looking forward to normal work – if not furloughed, working as usual anyway or, sadly, fired – we will also be looking forward even more to normal life: to pubs, shops, restaurants, cafes, cinemas, theatres, football grounds, foreign holidays.
In short, there is, throughout Britain, not only a feeling that the kids have had it rough, but a wider yearning to have some fun. Some may also find themselves asking, as they look back on the last year, whether children really need those stress-inducing exams at all.
Since normal A-levels, GCSEs and other Btec exams proved impossible last year and won’t take place this year, why not simply shrug one’s shoulders and go with the flow, they will ask?
A piece in one of our most distinguished national newspapers caught this mood recently. “Take forest schools, which focus on outdoor, child-led lessons,” it said. “Many Scandinavian schools are already built on these principles.”
“Many tech high-flyers in America are sending their children to flexi-schools, where they spend afternoons building go-karts, doing pottery and looking after chickens,” it continued, in its tour d’horizan of possible change.
Now any sensible person will want pupils, amidst our largely urban culture, to connect with nature. And would welcome the prospect of them learning in forests or the like, assuming these can be accessed, and looking after chickens, if any can be found.
Nonetheless, there is a danger in this wandervogel mood – talking of harm done to children – of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. To illustrate which, we cite an example probed in that article and campaigned for elsewhere: scrapping GCSEs.
These are nowhere popular: those who dislike them because they are, to use a shorthand, too academic find themselves in strange alliance with those who believe that they’re not academic enough.
The National Education Union wants “an end to GCSEs, at least during the Covid pandemic period”. Michael Gove wanted to scrap them altogether, when he was Education Secretary, and have an English Baccalaureate Certificate instead.
But whatever the pluses and minuses of GCSEs may be, they at least provide the only assessment of pupils’ progress in secondary schools before post-16 education (assuming that the pupil enters it) reached by the least unfair means known to education: exams.
Is it really an educationally good thing – rather than a socially necessary thing – to have GCSEs and A-levels in abeyance? After all, we already know the consequence of leaning last year on the NEU’s preferred alternative.
Under “properly moderated teacher judgements”, there was significant grade inflation: more than a quarter of results was marked at top grades, with 76 per cent at grade 4 or above, compared to 67 per cent in 2019.
Joy may endure for a night, but weeping comes in the morning: or to put it another way, the gainers are ultimately losers if they can’t cope with the post-16 course to which that inflation has entitled them, or if wary employers look on the generation of 2020 askance.
A standard response to pointing this out is the claim that those who make it “are denigrating the hard work of our kids”. On the contrary, we’re “on their side”, to borrow another phrase from the jargon: fervently so.
Gove’s failure to get an English Baccalaureate Certificate in place, as an alternative to GCSEs, marked the beginning of the end for his period at the Education Department.
But what drove the term of the most significant Education Secretary of our time – and one who has set the pattern for schools since – was his commitment to combating “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.
Gove believed that an academic education can liberate deprived children from poverty, and his reforming programme, whether imposed from the top (exams and curriculum reform) or assisted from the bottom (the free schools programme), aimed to support it.
The PISA tests are as accepted a test of success or failure as any. Gove’s successors in the Education Department have worked with the framework he left them, and the 2018 and 2019 scores showed educational progress in England.
The best catch-up schemes for pupils, therefore, will be those that most effectively make up for lost time in the basics that Gove and his successors have striven to improve: extra-curricular activity in summer schools will be a plus, not a substitute.
Perhaps this site is making too much of the lotus-eating mood that we are trying to capture, or is mistaken in thinking that it exists at all. We suspect not.
“Now that the middle classes are on welfare themselves, through furlough or universal credit, it’s time to take a more relaxed view of the benefits system.”
“Now that the NHS has shown its place at the heart of the nation during the pandemic, it’s time to pile up those new hospitals and stop fretting about value for money. And pay restraint.”
“Now that we need to get our finances on a stable footing, let tax rises rather than spending cuts take the strain, and state-led spending drive economic revival and levelling-up
There is a certain amount of all that around at the moment, and we are suspicious of its drift – drift being the right word. Like some of those more extravagant plans for education reform, it threatens either to postpone making things better, or actually make them worse.