Think of the kids then think of the future of education

Dave – the editor

We’re now in yet another lockdown until pretty much the end of February. Before this was announced there was a lot of confusion and pretty heated argument as to whether kids should return to school to resume their already disrupted education or stay at home for online tuition. It had got to the point where industrial action was a real possibility. Now another lockdown has been announced and schools are set to remain closed for the duration of it, that argument is now water under the bridge. It’s now time to look at the impact of lockdowns on kids’ schooling and development, and also to ask questions about the long term future of education.

For those kids from less privileged backgrounds, online learning at home will prove to be anything from challenging to downright impossible. This will be for a range of reasons from not having access to their own laptop, only having a shaky internet connection through to living in overcrowded conditions and possibly in a dysfunctional home environment that’s not safe for them. Also, many working parents are going to struggle to get time off work at short notice to be with their kids as they ‘learn’ online, particularly if they’re in insecure, low paid employment. Sure, there will be some provision for vulnerable kids to still come into school but given the current state of confusion and chaos across the education sector, that will be patchy to say the least. All of this is coming on top of months of disruption since March 2020 which has already adversely impacted the education of these kids and in a growing number of cases, their mental health as well.

This is from Rod Grant, the headmaster of Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh:

“In the last three months, in my school and in schools like it, I am witnessing mental health issues unlike anything I’ve seen in my career. This is not me trying to be dramatic or to overplay what lockdown actually does to children. I am seeing children being diagnosed with clinical depression, increasing rates of self-harm (even in Scotland, where we already had the highest rate of self-harm in 15-year-old girls anywhere in the world, bar one), suicidal ideation and, something I haven’t seen for at least 20 years, a resurgence of eating disorders. Add to this, those students who are displaying worrying levels of stress and anxiety; the same students that describe online learning as stress inducing. Anyone that has been involved in a Zoom meeting knows how stressful it can be and yet the great solution to our educational recovery is online learning. Well, I’m an educator and I think, at best, it’s a horribly poor substitute for in-school learning.”

This is against a background of school kids being regarded as asymptomatic virus carriers who are a threat to their teachers and therefore, need to be controlled. That’s not exactly going to be good for their self esteem is it? What has been happening since March 2020 has already had an adverse impact on the mental health of a growing number of kids – the responses to the latest phase of the crisis are only going to exacerbate that. Face to face interaction with their peers is a vital part of a kid’s social and emotional development. It’s how they learn to be fully rounded human beings. That has been getting disrupted by bouts of school closures and online learning for over ten months now with no sign of any end in sight. A disrupted education, the diminishing of prospects in a lockdown ravaged economy and restrictions on socialising are all going to have a negative impact on mental health.

Again, from Rod Grant:

“Children need to be with their friends. They need to play. They need to develop their social and academic skills. How dare we have created an environment where a 5-year-old can say, ‘I can’t play with Freddy because he’s not part of my bubble’. It is the stuff of nonsense and it is our children who will end up being this lockdown’s ‘collateral damage’.”

Amidst the ongoing disruption and confusion, there will be a growing number of kids who will inevitably fall through the cracks. That will manifest itself from mental health crises through to a nihilistic disaffection with a society that a significant minority of kids will see as having failed them. Six months to a year and more down the line, it really will be a case of reaping what you sow…

A fair bit of what I’ve written about the crisis has been looking at the impact of lockdowns and tiered restrictions. That’s not just the immediate impact but also, the medium to long term consequences. The aim of these pieces has been to try and alert people to the increasingly dystopian future we face if we don’t start asking some hard questions about what’s being done to us in the name of ‘beating the virus’. However, as well as posing those questions, it’s also worth looking at the potential opportunities there are to pose the case for radical change.

With the education system in a state of chaos as a result of botched and inconsistent responses to the crisis, maybe we should take this opportunity to ask some searching questions about the role and purpose of education. Obviously, when you ask questions about the purpose of education, you can’t separate that from the big question of what kind of society we should be living in? If you search the vast wealth of anarchist writing in print and online, those questions and discussions have always been getting asked.

The problem is that at the moment the focus is reactive, attempting to address the here and now issues at the expense of our long term vision. That seems to manifest itself in following the line of the unions and not always fully acknowledging the damage that has been, and will continue to be done to the future of kids who will end up having well over a year of their education and development severely disrupted. Sure, I understand that for those comrades working in the education sector, being faced with ever shifting goalposts and changing demands doesn’t allow the space to think about the long term. As the saying goes – when you’re up to your arse in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp!

We need to start being more proactive and seize this opportunity to shift at least some of the agenda to longer term issues and aspirations. If the crisis is ever allowed to end, will education go back to the way it was? Will the extensive use of online ‘learning’ that favours those from more privileged backgrounds become the norm? Will the acceleration of this trend start to mean job losses among teaching staff as AI is increasingly deployed in the delivery of education? In an increasingly AI driven, online educational system, what will be the aim of teaching? These are just a few of the many questions that need to be answered about the direction education is going in and the future of our children and grandchildren.

I hope this piece is seen as a legitimate contribution to the debate about what education is for, whose interests it currently serves and what it could look like in a radically changed society. If the big corporations and their lackeys in government can leverage this crisis to further their interests, the least we can do in response is use it to not just shine a spotlight on a failing system, but also to offer the hope that things could be a lot different and a lot better.

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