Is the education system about to reform?

If we look at the history of educational reform – whether it be the introduction of a universal right to education, the dismantling of the tripartite system, or the attempt to sideline local authority control – we may view it as being driven by radical ideas and powerful interest groups, or as a consequence of shifts in society which spilt over into the education world and tipped it towards transformational change.

The latter perspective does not dismiss the role played by influential people and their desire to achieve reformation, but emphasises that unless the system is primed for radical change, strong claims and the exertion of power alone is not enough to lever something as monolithic as the education system. Tectonic shifts cause towers to fall much more effectively than the wrecking ball of human ingenuity.

The pandemic has opened up fissures which could lead to reform, and we can observe advocates for change aligning. But will they be successful in capitalising on this opportunity? And, if so, which way are we about to tip?

The hidden discourse

Disruptive events such as the pandemic can reveal the hidden discourse that determines our way of looking at the enterprise of schooling. In more stable times, our assumptions are implicit in the regularities of daily life: we rarely stop to question fundamentally why we proceed in the way we do. However, these assumptions are brought rudely to the surface by societal shifts and are exposed anew to our scrutiny. What is revealed are the conflicts, paradoxes, and eternal dilemmas of mass education.

To understand the ways in which the pandemic may tip us towards reform, we must first examine what aspects of the hidden discourse have been exposed. What peculiarities have we been forced to confront?

This unveiling has predominantly been caused by the ‘closure’ of schools (by which I mean the act of preventing most pupils physically attending school), the consequent perception of a ‘loss of learning’ and ‘damage’ narrative, and the domino effect on the cancelling of public examinations. Together, these events have revealed a paradox, a conflict of expectation, and a fundamental problem of schooling.

The Paradox

Our examination system is built on paradox. Of the many purposes it serves, perhaps the most important for society is that it allows us to sort children at the age of 16 into ‘appropriate destinations’. Exam results determine whether the child should progress to level 2 or 3 qualifications, to academic or vocational pathways, and steers which subjects are allowed to be pursued. For this purpose to be served, we require differential attainment. What use would it be if the grades students received were all clustered around the middle?

In normal times, this inequality of outcome is tolerated. We pretend that it is purely the result of merit: that those who work hard and have ‘ability’ will be rewarded. This allows us to maintain a veneer of fairness and the narrative that if you work hard you will succeed.

The unequal effect of the pandemic on schools in different parts of the country has caused many to question this fairness. How can it be right that we measure all children in the same way when some have had a greater educational opportunity than others? Well, it can’t be. But what this matter has reminded us of is the uncomfortable truth that this fairness never really existed. Whether it be due to differences in school quality, geographical location, economic disadvantage, or upbringing, advantage and disadvantage are spread unevenly across the population.

Why are we prepared to gloss over this inequality in normal times but not when it is a consequence of the pandemic? Is it because the sheer randomness of effect is intolerable to us and feeds our sense of injustice? If so, why do we assume that the regular forms of disadvantage are any less random?

The paradox of examinations is that they reveal inequality but simultaneously require this inequality. They are predicated on the wish for a meritocracy that doesn’t exist. I do not present this as a case for their eradication (although some will) because I have yet to conceive of a better solution. My point is that this paradox has once again been revealed and will be the playground for mischevious minds.

The Conflict

When we argue about the ‘purpose’ of schools (an unanswerable question in the singular), educationalists are often guilty of wondering mostly about what it is that schools should do for children’s futures, or for the role they can play in a future society. Less often will we dwell on what they do in the present, and even less often what role schools play in allowing other aspects of society to function – the societal altruism of the institution.

One such altruistic role of schools is to provide childcare so that adults may go to work. This purpose is distasteful to many in schools presumably because it threatens to demean their status and devalue ‘higher causes’ they like to believe are their calling. Somehow, the responsibility of being in loco parentis (in place of the parent) is shunned, despite most teachers recognising the fundamental role parents play in a child’s socialisation and education.

And yet, the ‘presence’ of the child at school is itself important for so many reasons, as have been revealed by the pandemic. Setting eyes on the child is the most powerful safeguarding tool. Physical presence gives nuance to human interaction, promotes stronger social bonding, and reinforces a sense of personhood through belonging and noticing how one’s presence changes the events that take place around you.

Through absence, we have come to notice these purposes and re-evaluate their importance. But with this re-evaluation comes conflict. Firstly, there is the conflict with our previous assumptions (about the relative importance of other purposes, such as the acquisition of knowledge or achievement of qualifications). Then there is role-conflict: an uncomfortable questioning of what part we play in these revealed purposes. Finally, there is conflict between the school and society. What we expect of ourselves may be contradictory to what others expect of us.

This conflict plays a role in priming us to accept change. Any transformation will require us to let go of something we held dear with the promise that this loss will be compensated.

The fundamental problem

The dilemma of ‘catch up’ confounds many of us in schools. Why should this be?

There is a fundamental problem of schooling in that we ask schools to ensure all children learn the same thing, whilst we know that they cannot. This dilemma is covered over in recent curriculum debates where we are asked to construct curricula which contain the powerful knowledge that all young people are entitled to acquire.

In lockdown, with far less effective pedagogical tools at our disposal, this problem has been made all the more stark. Upon returning to school, we are implored to make up for ‘lost learning’, to ‘close the gaps’; but where should we start?

We know that even when in the classroom, every child leaves with different impressions of what was taught. Each teaching episode further adds to the diversity rather than diminishing it. We cannot define the ‘gap’ by what was not taught, only by what has not been learnt. But to discern this is akin to locating dark matter – to measure the nothingness between things. We can only infer the presence of gaps, not evidence them.

And to ‘catch up’ raises unanswerable questions of ‘with who?’, ‘by when?’, and ‘what for?’ This is even before we consider how. Time gone cannot be recaptured, therefore any future use of time displaces an alternative use. This is a zero-sum game and who are we to judge what should be taken away from children as a sacrifice to deliver our precious curriculum?

Within this space rages the ignorance about what schools do (and cannot do). There is idealism and denial. Like the stages of grief, we need to work through our emotions about the time lost until we accept that it cannot be brought back. Only then will we be able to move on.

The tipping point

The implicit peculiarities of schooling have been revealed and invite our reappraisal. However, the question of whether reform will happen remains open. Many are lining up to say ‘Aha! I knew it’, when of course they knew little – no more than anyone else. Change will happen not because it is right but because it is ripe. There will be no resting place – no time when everything settles into equilibrium – just more iterations of imperfection. It is much more gratifying to see how this plays out than to try to predict it. Get a beer, sit back, and enjoy the show.

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