Normal Service Will Be Resumed Shortly?

When there is a power cut, there is a ‘points failure at Clapham’ or when the TV doesn’t work, we long for normal service to be resumed. When a global pandemic shuts down life as we know it, there is some emerging evidence that the old ‘normal’ is neither possible nor appealing to people.

Internationally, even right of centre political parties are coming to this realisation and some are busy re-making themselves as exponents of extensive public welfare investments as well as the usual kind of stimulus measures necessary to protect economies in a depression. According to a snap opinion poll reported by Sky News in the UK, only 9% of those polled wanted life to return to the ‘old normal ’. The Governor of the Bank of England notes that people’s ‘values have changed’ with health and wellbeing now top priorities . In education, the highly-regarded headteacher of a London secondary school writes: ‘We don’t want to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t working ’.

Of course, the degree to which we long for an old normality depends on whether we were comfortable with it in the first place – whether we had enough money to live on, access to healthcare, education, somewhere to live, meaningful work, freedom from persecution, etc.. In England, if we look around at how people are responding to the question ‘what should education be like, after COVID-19?’, we see a range of responses, including a few that seek to perpetuate the populist educational culture war that has stymied education in England since 2010.

But these responses are now more than ever in the minority and now seem to be anxious that the apparent logic of the ‘old normal’, under which the ‘New Educational Establishment’ (NEE, to use Melissa Benn’s term) thrived, might just evaporate. In the depths of a lockdown, it’s difficult to argue that schools are only about the transmission of western canonical knowledge, ‘warm/strict’ discipline and best run by private entities rather than local government when teachers’ waking hours are preoccupied with ensuring their poor students are fed, that the children of key workers are cared for, and that teaching and learning suddenly have to be shifted online whether we like ‘online’ or not.

The trad/prog culture war – always more of a rhetorical device in a political game than a reflection of reality – has never seemed more irrelevant.

Which isn’t to say that those ideas will disappear. Rather, they will now have to be argued for more vigorously and creatively to a public that actually wants to focus on the challenges of the here-and-now as well as envisioning some light at the end of what is, in England, a very dark tunnel. People will likely want that light at the end to be more joyful, more optimistic, more caring and, yes, probably more social too. Underpowered RCTs and cognitive load theory don’t even begin to get to the starting line for the big ideas that will characterise the future many educators need to survive.

Rapid responses

Two recent, rapidly produced publications have started to sketch out some of the questions of values, focus and structural conditions that those of us who work in education will have to confront in the years ahead. The first, After COVID-19: The Longer-Term Impacts of the Coronavirus Crisis on Education, produced by Monash Education Futures, contains multiple short position statements, each written by an expert. The second, Five education myths that COVID-19 shatters by members of the University of Manchester Critical Education Policy and Leadership Studies research group, debunks some ‘zombie facts’ that have nonetheless underpinned education systems in many developed countries for several years. I think both these publications work well together – framing some of the arguments and then, particularly in the case of the Education Futures report, getting into the detail.

Scenario-building: After COVID-19

The multiple expert position statements in After COVID-19 tend to build scenarios for the ways things might be in education longer-term – arising both from the current crisis but also how things have been. The final section of the report – concerning the uses of evidence and research – helped to re-frame my own reading of what the authors term a ‘rapid-response report’.

Mark Rickinson notes that we are witnessing an increased appreciation for the value of evidence but also experiencing the complexities of actually understanding the evidence, what it can and can’t tell us and how we use it. In particular, Beatriz Gallo Cordoba argues for greater research literacy in quantitative methods at the same time as recognising that skills in statistical analysis do not automatically equate to substantive expertise in a field. Cautioning us to recognise our own lack of expertise also features in Cordoba’s argument, especially in social media contexts that can give our voices equal or higher prominence than genuine experts. A related call from both Deborah Corrigan and Jennifer Hall is to meet the urgent need we are now seeing day-to-day with a greater public understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Rather than simply being a policy device to bolster our economies, STEM responds directly to human curiosity about the world around us.

Kathleen Aikens’ contribution argues that dealing with the pandemic emergency is also related to tackling the climate emergency. The pandemic abruptly re-orients us to the global challenges that we all experience locally in terms of sustainability. And moreover, sustainability has to be broadly defined going beyond the natural environment to all aspects of our lives, including work. Sustainable work – as teachers and school leaders – is a theme picked up by several contributors. Aligning with the themes of the Manchester BERA blog, stability and funding are central to rethinking both the present and the future. Both are necessary to create the conditions for trust within schools and universities that can survive the kind of shocks to the system we are now experiencing, according to both Jane Wilkinson and Amanda Heffernan. Stephanie Westcott notes that we have started to reimagine the daily work of the teacher beyond instruction and accountability. Kelly-Ann Allen notes not only that schools are a community but are embedded in communities. Teachers, schools and, yes, leaders all contribute to the goal of sustainability, broadly defined.

After COVID-19 also addresses one of the more obvious challenges and necessary shifts in practices that educators have had to address. Mike Phillips reminds us that online education, ‘virtual schooling’ and digital pedagogies need to have a higher profile in teacher development – both pre-service and in-service – but at the same time enacted in ways that are critical of the underlying, inequitably distributed infrastructure, as Carlo Perrotta and Neil Selwyn observe. For Bronwyn Cumbo, this will involved greater awareness of digital inequities and more creative visions for digitally-mediated education. The current, necessary shift online should prompt us to think about new ways of doing university too – leading to more creative experimentation in programme design and pedagogies, as Catherine Waite points out.

The importance of the offline, physically-mediated social world also has a high profile in the report. Ruth Jeanes picks up on our heightened awareness of the importance and benefits of physical activity, for mental well-being as well as physical fitness. Jeanes also notes that we have been shown some new ways of engaging people in enjoyable, self-motivated physical activity and there are lessons for educational institutions to learn from popular culture and public pedagogies. Crucially, Christine Grové urges us to acknowledge and accept the need to deal with the mental health shock that will follow the immediate lockdown. In a separate interview, Monash lecturer Lefteris Patlamazoglu has talked about our response as a kind of collective grief for a way of living we have lost. However much some would wish schools and universities to be only ever about learning ‘knowledge’ in the  ‘purest’ sense (as Emily Berger points out), once again, we have been reminded that isn’t the case. What happens when the most restrictive conditions are over? What happens in communities worldwide so badly affected by the virus and the trauma of devastating death tolls – London, New York, Bergamo? But also what happens when children and students want to start talking? And all this at a time, as Lucas Walsh and Bertalan Magyar note, when there will be high risks of increased poverty, the entrenchment of casualisation, precarity and zero hours contracts?

One of the strengths of After COVID-19 is its scope but another is its ability to speak directly to a wide audience on a range of issues. It’s been rewarding for me to see this kind of inclusive discussion at the heart of the Faculty of Education I’m honoured to be leading from June this year.

Five education myths that COVID-19 shatters

To turn to Five education myths that COVID-19 shatters, the authors of this blog for the British Educational Research Association address the political-economic conditions that they believe are implicated both in the impact that the pandemic has had as well as the necessary responses to it:

“We argue that Covid-19 signifies, first, the catastrophic failure or irrelevance of the technologies of privatisation to addressing the pandemic’s exigencies and implications, and, second, the necessity of a public form of education to address the post-pandemic landscape.”

The five ‘zombie facts’ they debunk, through judicious use of hyperlinked research papers, together confront the pervasive myths that nonetheless have structured dominant, popular discourses of educational effectiveness, accountability, governance and the aims of education. High on the agenda of the authors are the myths surrounding leadership – the way it has become fetishized to the point that everyone is a leader, captivated by what Meindl called the ‘romance of leadership ’.

There are interesting overlaps between these authors’ myths and the ‘cultural myths’ of teaching and teacher education that Deborah Britzman identified in 1986  – principally the myth that ‘everything depends on the teacher’ or, additionally in the Manchester blog, specifically on the leader. Indeed, as I read the Manchester myths, I was reminded of Britzman’s more recent psychoanalytic turn and her work on education as one of the Freudian ‘impossible professions ’ where the inherent uncertainty of educational practice is met by demands for certainty by the self and others. Uncertainty is something we are having to learn, with great difficulty, to accept these days.

The dominant figure in the Manchester blog, however, is the spectre of privatisation that produces the myth that enterprise and policy entrepreneurs can solve intractable socioeconomic problems that the public sector has failed to solve. The blog argues for rethinking the role of the state in public education and the relations of power between parents and local communities and the schools they serve. The sub-text, for me at least, was that it was no longer good enough – if it ever was – to think up politician-flattering arguments for maintaining the privatisation trajectory but on a better organised basis. Instead, building on our abruptly renewed understanding that we actually need a locally-coordinated, democratically accountable, networked, community-engaged and well-resourced school system, we should make the best use of the limited funds that will be available in the years ahead to re-connect schools with local government areas, themselves given more power and resources and subject to greater scrutiny by engaged electorates who will benefit from the decentralisation of power from Westminster. In England, a National Education Service is a great idea if it is both locally grounded and responsive as well as, crucially, locally accountable.

A different future is possible

As William McNeill showed in Plagues and People, history does suggest that things do not simply return to normal after a pandemic event. The disease becomes an historical watershed. Crucially, however, McNeill showed that what follows is not necessarily progressive or even benign. There is the potential for extreme, regressive positions to dominate – for example, ethno-nationalism, eugenicist thinking and even more authoritarian populism – just as there is for an equitable re-balancing of interests and the rebuilding of welfare state regimes. So the future has to be fought for; it can’t be assumed. And the vested interests of the NEE (just one of many relevant groupings) will fight cleverly and hard, supported through political patronage and media interest. So alternatives need to be imagined more creatively and argued for more vigorously and in just as stimulating and engaging ways as the well-funded and well-connected NEE. After COVID-19 and Five education myths COVID-19 shatters are strong starts in what is going to be a long struggle in tricky conditions but one which, the current evidence suggests at least, will have large sections of the public on the side of a different future for education – indeed for the whole of society.

 

References

After COVID-19: The Longer-Term Impacts of the Coronavirus Crisis on Education (Monash Education Futures; available at: https://educationfutures.monash.edu/all—present/after-covid-19)

Five education myths that COVID-19 shatters: BERA blog, 14 April 2020 (Courtney, Armstrong, Gardner-McTaggart, Gunter, Hughes, Innes & Rayner; available at: https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/five-education-myths-that-covid-19-shatters)

William H. McNeill. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Bantam, 1998.

 

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