In a year dominated by a virus which scientists are only now beginning to understand, planning and strategy have inevitably been tempered by the need for agility and resilience. In response to the first lockdown, schools, colleges, and universities alike quickly moved teaching online and redesigned their campuses. Supermarkets overhauled their supply processes and pivoted towards online shopping. Restaurants ripped up their menus and rotas to cater for a far smaller, socially-distanced clientele.
Even with a vaccine now slowly being rolled out, uncertainty remains over what 2021 will have in store for us. Guidance published by the Department for Education last week aimed to quell confusion over how next summer’s GCSE and A-level exams will play out. More generous grading, advance notice of exam topics and additional sittings have been pledged to make up for the disruption faced by students during the pandemic. Yet many questions remain unanswered, not least the elephant in the room: how do you take account of the significant differences in learning lost between areas and institutions most affected by Covid-19 and their counterparts in other parts of England? The has been no attempt to address this, with the question being “bundled off”, in the words of BBC education editor Branwen Jeffreys, for a panel of as yet unnamed “experts” (now, seemingly, back in vogue with politicians) to deal with.
With an economic crisis growing more severe by the day, there is a political temptation to react to the situation as it evolves to ensure that immediate needs are met, rather than thinking longer term. This would be a colossal mistake – and nowhere more so than in education. One of the most staggering aspects of the DfE exams guidance, as far as the team at Villiers Park Educational Trust was concerned, was that there was no mention of any plan specifically to support disadvantaged young people.
After a year in which a decade of work on closing the attainment gap was unceremoniously wiped out in just three months of lockdown, according to the Education Endowment Foundation, these already marginalised groups are at risk of being left further and further behind. And the most troubling thing of all is that no-one seems to care. It feels like this is being accepted as an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the pandemic.
Take Ofqual’s report into the A-level and GCSE grading from the summer. It claims that the grading system used achieved the low bar of managing not to “systemically disadvantage” students on the basis of protected characteristics or economic disadvantage. This is the very least that should be expected, and feels like an exercise in self-justification by Ofqual (albeit an understandable one, given how the regulator was hung out to dry by the government through the last-minute U-turn on how A-level grades were awarded- after students had already received their results). Ofqual’s throwaway line that the impact of students’ socio-economic status on their educational progress and attainment – for me, the greatest existential question we must address as a society – is “outside the scope of this report” summarises the fingers-in-ears approach of the government and policymakers when it comes to addressing inequality in the middle of a pandemic. ‘Levelling up’, as Luke Tryl has powerfully argued, could be interpreted as an unifying agenda that applies to divided communities from Workington to Notting Hill – at present, it appears little more than a slogan to protect the Conservatives’ 2019 election gains beyond the ‘Red Wall’.
While building capacity to respond to expected and unexpected changes is essential, this does not mean we should lose track of the bigger picture – namely, the challenges we already faced before COVID-19, and what comes afterwards. While the pandemic has unearthed social inequalities, it did not create them. Levels of adult participation in learning are at a record low, and inequalities between higher and lower skilled workers become ever clearer. Economic and technological changes on the horizon mean that, as the CBI’s recent research with McKinsey demonstrates, up to 90% of the workforce will need reskilling by 2030. And the UK is already playing catch up, with productivity levels lagging behind those of its main competitors.
At Villiers Park, we offer an important part of the solution. Our mission is to improve the life chances of young people from less advantaged backgrounds. From Tyneside to Hastings, we work with students aged 14-19 in schools and colleges to encourage them to imagine positive futures for themselves, and empower them to make these ambitions a reality. Historically, Villiers Park worked in traditional widening participation activity, supporting young people from under-represented groups to progress to university – in particular, elite institutions. But, as the world has changed, our mission has evolved into our pioneering new Future Leaders programme. Society is catching up with the fact there is more to post-16 education than HE. University is not the only way to succeed – further education and apprenticeships offer equally valid and exciting pathways for young people. Reshaping post-16 education is the next step on this journey – a mission which the Augar review was intended to trigger. Some 18 months on, the government response is still yet to emerge, and the much-touted FE white paper seems to have yet again been kicked into the long grass.
The consequences of the pandemic, not to mention Brexit, make the skills agenda more, not less, urgent. We have a rare opportunity to rethink our education system from the bottom up, so it offers people of all ages the opportunity to learn, train and retrain throughout their careers. And it is an opportunity we cannot afford to let slip through our fingers. As Churchill famously put it: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Stephen Exley is director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust, and former further education editor at TES.