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A child in a face mask

A child in a face mask. Photo: www.vperemen.com / CC BY-SA

Williamson’s Covid catch-up plan will not address the real fault lines in our schooling system, says Sean Ledwith

The current Education Secretary has achieved the seemingly impossible feat of being more reviled by teachers than Michael Gove. One survey suggests over 90% of them think he should resign. Apart from presiding over last year’s chaotic handling of public exams, Gavin Williamson has utterly failed to adequately secure the health and safety of children and staff in classrooms during the pandemic.

Despite the lies peddled by the Tories and their tabloid allies, recent ONS data suggests teachers are among the most exposed occupations to covid infection.

Railroading

The farcical return for one day at the start of this term was just the most spectacular of his blunders. Now he is a central figure in Johnson’s plan to railroad schools into a reopening on the 8th of March that many regard as premature and likely to reboot to the virus.

This week Williamson also unveiled his much-hyped Covid recovery plan for schools. This includes vague notions about summer schooling and one-one-one tuition but nothing much else beyond hackneyed cliches about catching up and no child left behind. Who exactly is supposed to staff these summer schools is conspicuously left unanswered.

Back to the exam factory

What will definitely not be included is any questioning of the Gradgrind-style, conveyor belt mentality of educational policy that has characterised the Tories’ approach to schooling for decades.

The enforced suspension of Sats, GCSE and A-Level exams for the second consecutive year actually opens up a space for creative thinking on the nature and purpose of education. Unfortunately for the country’s children and educators, there is no chance a neoliberal clone like Williamson will take advantage of this opportunity.

Could do better

The proposed financing of the Education Secretary’s nebulous proposals is pitifully inadequate for the scale of the task. Williamson claims the catch-up is necessary to compensate for the effects of lockdown on children’s education. He predictably glosses over the fact the three lockdowns have been necessary because this time last year his government spectacularly failed to prepare the country for the viral onslaught when it was already becoming apparent that a major threat was approaching.

The spending announced yesterday amounts to a risible additional 43p per pupil in real terms. The package is presented as an outlay of £700 million, including £200 million to be spent on summer schooling for Year 6 pupils starting secondary school in September.

This is significantly less than the government spent on last year’s ill-conceived Eat Out to Help Out scheme to prop up cafes and restaurants. Natalie Perera from the Education Policy Institute commented:

“While any additional support for schools is welcome, the government’s package announced today is not enough to support pupils to catch up on their learning and to provide wellbeing activities for pupils of all ages …much too modest to make a serious difference.

It would hopelessly be naïve to expect much better from a government that has slashed overall education spending by 8% over the last ten years, including a 57% reduction in LEA services spending per pupil. Last year’s campaigns by footballer Marcus Rashford around free school meals exposed the stark reality that the Tories are incapable of considering the plight of working-class children.  

Data-driven

Williamson and his predecessors at the DFE have created a culture of mechanical monitoring and high stakes testing in schools that have inflicted huge mental health problems on children and unmanageable workloads on teachers. Incredibly the government is still planning to introduce a baseline assessment next year for the youngest children in the primary sector which will intensify the crass data-driven agenda even further.

Neoliberal ideology has steadily eroded the progressive character of the English education system over recent decades. The absurdity of young children being forced to comprehend an obscure grammatical device that ministers themselves struggle to use encapsulates the soulless nature of Tory education policy.

Total bankers

Recent education secretaries, inspired by the execrable Gove, have blindly pushed for the least imaginative model of schooling as identified by Marxist educator, Paulo Freire:

“Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the "banking" concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

This hugely restricted notion of learning has increasingly pressurised schools to sideline supposedly less profitable parts of the curriculum and teachers to teach to the test.

The Tories are only capable of conceiving education in a quantitative form that can be measured and standardised according to the neoliberal template. The explicit nature of their politicised approach was revealed at the end of last year with the directive from the DFE to curtail the use of anti-capitalist material in the classroom.

Teach to transform

A genuine Covid recovery plan for education would start with throwing out the straitjacket of relentless monitoring and testing. In its place would be a renewed focus on the real value of education as a rounded means for a young person to understand the world and their place in it. Freire also identified the inadequacy of the neoliberal model that Williamson absurdly thinks our children need more of:

“The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world.”

Williamson would no doubt like to use his proposed summer schools to reinforce the importance of the fronted adverbial. A meaningful re-evaluation of the education system would encourage children to reflect on what sort of society allows him to become Education Secretary.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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