In fairness, there are plenty of examples of government-funded schools – often (though not exclusively) academies, free schools and grammars rather than those run by local authorities – where teachers have put in terrific efforts to stay in touch with their students, giving out assignments, marking work and delivering online classes.
But the overall record has been very patchy indeed, with many children (including one of my own) receiving no contact or significant guidance at all. By September they will have been out of school for nearly six months, and it is not clear that they will get back to a full educational experience even then.
The unions have resisted attempts to get children back into school, or to suspend the traditional (but currently pointless) long summer holidays to enable some catch-up. While it is reasonable for unions to seek to protect the health of their members – the ostensible reason for dragging their feet on returning to work – the risk to teachers of infection has been greatly exaggerated.
But it is not just the unions which are to blame. Management of many schools has also been exposed as unimaginative and reactive rather than innovative and enterprising. The performance of the Department for Education has been poor, concentrating on producing page after page of over-prescriptive guidance about how to reopen schools safely rather than chivvying head teachers to get things moving. Ofsted – so keen on castigating schools for insufficient diversity or over-reliance on traditional teaching methods – seems to have done little to help them in the current crisis.
By contrast, independent schools seem to have been faster to innovate and to deliver online and/or personalised support to students. They would have reopened their buildings much sooner were it not for insurance issues which the government failed to resolve.
This better performance may in part be because independent schools employ more committed and flexible staff, attracted to teaching as a vocation rather than simply as a meal ticket. But clearly the financial incentive to provide continuing educational support is a huge factor: parents are not willing to pay fees without getting a service and private schools have had to respond.
This incentive is totally lacking in the state sector where parents can do nothing to show their displeasure at schools continuing to be closed or run on a skeleton basis for months on end. The money comes in whether schools are open or not; even teachers who are effectively furloughed are still on full pay.
When all this is over, we should go back to first principles in thinking about our schools. State education in Britain has left far too many youngsters functionally illiterate and innumerate, lacking the skills needed in the 21st century. Many schools are dangerous places where discipline is lacking and bullying is rife. International comparisons show us slipping down league tables, particularly in relation to many Asian countries where education is more highly valued than here. The Covid-19 nightmare has shone an unforgiving light on wider systemic weaknesses in our schools.
Why do we involve government at all in education? It began in the nineteenth century with the unassailable principle of protecting minors. If some parents were unwilling or unable to provide or pay for education themselves, it was argued, the state needed to step in.
Our Victorian ancestors did not envisage that education should be free for everybody. Subsidies should only go to the poorest. Most parents, as scholars such as E. G. West have pointed out, could afford at least some contribution to schooling costs, and their spending power helped ensure that schools be responsive to their wishes. Unlike today, when most UK parents must accept what they are given – or, at the moment, not given – by the government.
My friend James Tooley has shown that people in many countries, even in desperate poverty and crises far worse than our own, are willing to pay towards their children’s education. Perhaps we should think of returning to this principle in the UK.
One relatively painless way to bring this about might be via some form of voucher. We could give all parents a voucher equivalent to existing average age-related expenditure per school pupil. This could be used in the private sector as well as in the state sector, and could be topped up by parents’ own contributions, thus giving many more families access to private education. If inequality is the concern, poorer families could be given vouchers with a bigger cash value.
Over time, the value of the voucher would be frozen and all parents would have to contribute as the average costs of schooling rose. State schools – which should be privatised, whether as for-profits or not-for-profits – would have to compete on both price and quality of education. Different school styles could emerge, including mixed modes of online and face-to-face teaching, different lengths of school day and school year, different curricula. The distinction between state and private education – for so long something which has maintained pernicious class barriers in Britain – would gradually disappear.
Guardian readers, union officials and other blobby types would have conniptions. Why should our wonderful ‘world class’ education system be turned into a supermarket, where people pick and choose what schools they want for their children?
Well, it wasn’t the supermarkets that let us down in this crisis, was it? They never closed, while their poorly-paid staff ran ostensibly much greater risks of infection than those in the classroom.
If our teachers don’t like the marginal risks which a return to school might bring, they should perhaps consider another career. Sadly, there are going to be plenty of young and not-so-young graduates who will be looking for such secure and reasonably well-paid employment in the near future. They might make a better fist of it than many current teachers.