The 2010s saw a growing tendency to argue against the principle of mass compulsory schooling.
Different voices from outside the education community continue to chip away at the idea of fixed-schedule, bricks-and-mortar schools. We're warned repeatedly that mass schooling is "broken". We're told that school systems provide a "cookie-cutter" education that fails our best and brightest. It's argued that schools are stuck in an outdated "factory" model based on impersonal and inefficient "batch processing" of students, and that mass schooling needs to be reinvented – if not replaced altogether.
Prominent critics include industrialists and employers who complain that schools no longer produce the workforce skills and aptitudes that they require. These complaints are bolstered by a powerful lobby of IT industry and EdTech companies offering "flexible" digital alternatives. Elsewhere, free-marketeers peddle the argument that state support of universal school provision is blocking market innovation.
While most educators have tended to shrug off such challenges, these ideas have certainly been gaining traction within policy and business circles. Why not have fully-online schools? Why not allow students to learn in self-organised and "personalised" ways, taking micro-credentials and gaining experience within local communities and businesses? Why not let commercial actors "disrupt" the received wisdom that mass schooling is the best way of educating a nation?
The coronavirus effect
Yet, all this thinking is being put into stark relief by the unfolding development of the coronavirus, COVID-19. This pandemic is stress-testing all aspects of our societies in uncomfortable and unsettling ways.
While the classroom might appear an old-fashioned concept, COVID-19 is demonstrating that there is something irreplaceable about students and teachers coming together to learn in person.
In terms of education, then, COVID-19 is certainly stretching education systems to breaking point. However, if we're looking for positives, then it could be argued that the virus is also beginning to highlight the integral role that mass compulsory schooling plays in society.
The first few months of the virus have already demonstrated that we cannot simply "get rid of" schools and – most importantly – neither should we want to.
By the beginning of March, school closures had affected nearly 300 million children around the world. As this unprecedented shutdown continues, it's now showing us exactly what schools do for society – and what we would stand to lose without them.
School closures have highlighted the fact that millions of children rely on their schools for subsidised food, mental-health support, and respite from other unsatisfactory circumstances at home.
For example, millions of families suddenly faced with home-schooling have been quickly reminded how difficult it is to "educate" children. Masses of parents struggling to support their child’s learning at home have been taking to social media to praise teachers, and stress the point that teachers deserve to be paid considerably more than their current salaries.
At the same time, the efforts of education authorities to provide alternate online tuition is also highlighting the limitations of digital teaching and learning.
While the classroom might appear an old-fashioned concept, COVID-19 is demonstrating that there is something irreplaceable about students and teachers coming together to learn in person. Online videos, digital content and discussion forums are very different (and often inferior) forms of schooling.
The equity of access divide
COVID-19 is also showing the stark realities of the so-called "homework" divide – that is, the lack of basic resources that many households have for children to do schoolwork at home. Most notable is the lack of computer resources and high-speed internet connectivity in many poorer households. Put simply, taking children out of school is a further source of inequity that already inequitable societies can ill-afford.
The enforced closure of schools is also highlighting the critical roles that schools play in wider society. The virus is a stark reminder that schools are not simply sites of teaching and learning. The first few weeks of school closures have highlighted the fact that millions of children rely on their schools for subsidised food, mental-health support, and respite from other unsatisfactory circumstances at home.
The economics against school closure
School closures are also highlighting how reliant economies are on parents being able to leave children at school. The option of "working from home" with children applies only to a small subsection of white-collar employees. Most other workplaces cannot be so flexible.
It's been reckoned that school closures lasting four weeks will cut 3 per cent from the UK’s GDP – a potential loss of billions of pounds. More seriously, school closures would leave 15 per cent of US healthcare workers unable to go to work – a figure that rises to about 30 per cent of nurses.
All of a sudden, we're seeing at first hand the crucial (but often taken-for-granted) role that schools play across society. No one would claim that schools are perfect – there's clearly much that can be improved, and substantial problems continue to blight school systems. Yet COVID-19 is demonstrating how schools are woven deeply into the fabric of society. To argue now for the "death of school" feels like an even less constructive argument than it did before the pandemic took hold.
For the time being, many countries are working out how to cope temporarily with the cessation of mass schooling. Yet this is clearly a situation neither sustainable nor desirable.
Once the virus has passed, the school closures of 2020 need to be remembered as a lasting lesson – especially as decisions are made during the remainder of the decade concerning what sorts of education systems we want in the future.
So, in the aftermath of COVID-19 we need to move beyond a media discourse where schools are portrayed as continually "failing".
We need to address and reverse a situation where 71 per cent of teachers report feeling underappreciated and disenchanted with their profession. Now that the value of schools has become so apparent, we need to think about how to improve the school systems that we already have – not wish them away altogether.
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