18 Jan 2021
Steve Turnbull’s review finds a book with some thought-provoking contributions to imagining post-Covid education, but one grave omission
As the nation endures its third lockdown within the space of ten months, it is beyond debate that the Covid pandemic has caused massive and unprecedented disruption to schools. Staff, children and parents alike are under considerable strain. There is also no doubt that the government’s response, principally through the DfE and Ofsted, has drawn wide and frequently fierce criticism.
But many have gone further, claiming that not only has the crisis revealed longstanding issues, it has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset the school system, or (to use the vernacular) to ‘build back better’ and create a ‘new normal’. That is the core argument of Lessons from Lockdown, authored by ‘policy influencer and educational commentator’ Tony Breslin.
The book focuses on the impact the initial lockdown of spring/summer 2020 had on primary and secondary schools. Describing its approach as”‘part ethnography… part quasi-journalistic account… and part research stud”’, it chronicles the main events, analyses reaction to these in the school system and mainstream media and draws out a range of lessons that stakeholders across the spectrum can learn from.
The book’s (‘social/holistic’) progressive perspective will likely meet with some scepticism from more ‘traditionalist’ quarters. But it is fundamentally right to argue (backed up by a telling quote from PM Boris Johnson) that the pandemic has cast a sharp light on the structural inequities that undermine inclusion/wellbeing and prevent disadvantaged children from achieving their full potential.
The breadth of thinking is impressive and the book seldom fails to engage
Notable among these are the ‘digital divide’ caused by socially varied access to computer technology, and the seemingly deep disparities between assessment outcomes highlighted by Ofqual’s attempt to fix the problem of cancelled examinations with algorithmically balanced grades.
Drawing on the findings of its research with 100 participants made up of ‘pupils, parents and professionals’, the book makes a raft (50 in total) of policy recommendations. Some of these seem more hopeful than realistic, given the government’s largely unresponsive record (Marcus Rashford’s campaigning aside). But the breadth of thinking is impressive, demonstrating both the firm handle Breslin has on the current policy framework and his extensive background knowledge.
The latter is illustrated by his convincing attempt to put the issues raised by Covid into a broader industrial/post-industrial context. Arguing that the popularity of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was attributable to a rise of ‘anti-politics’ stands out as one of the book’s more dubious claims. But they are few and far between and never undermine the whole.
But the book seldom fails to engage by sustaining a strong sense of narrative and capturing more important ‘lessons’. These include the remarkable agility shown by the school system (especially given the record of policy U-turns), and a new understanding emerging between parents and teachers. Assuming the research is representative – and the instant backfire from Gavin Williamson’s appeal to complain to Ofsted indicates it might be – many parents seem to have gained valuable insight into the complexities and demands of teaching.
This chimes with another resonant theme in the book: the importance of having realistic expectations. ‘Super heads’ in danger of burnout, take note. Sensibly, Breslin advocates a shift towards a more blended approach to teaching and learning in order to make schools more ‘resilient’ post-Covid. Unfortunately, he then neglects to mention the health risks, for teachers and pupils, of excessive ‘screen use’.
My main criticism of the book, however, is that its ‘reset’ argument actually doesn’t go far enough. There is plenty of talk about resilience within its pages, but not a single mention of environmental sustainability. Yet, to my mind, the most important lockdown lesson of all is that we simply have to join the dots between zoonotic pandemics, the catastrophic loss of biodiversity caused by rampant industrialism, and climate change. And we must allow children to see the big picture that emerges about the ‘normal’ that created Covid.
Nonetheless, while it may make uncomfortable reading for Gavin Williamson, it’s a highly thought-provoking and significant contribution to the emerging educational literature on lockdown.