Looking Back And Forward - Beyond The Pandemic

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 11 August 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Education; Coronavirus; Funding for Education; Academic Assessment

It is five years exactly since I wrote my first article for Legal Island and I am immensely grateful to Scott Alexander and the team at Legal Island for giving me the opportunity to comment on current events in education. I have written over 50 pieces for this column during these years so it seemed an appropriate moment to pause and reflect on what has changed and what has stubbornly remained the same.

Back in August 2016 in my first article I wrote;

“While politicians duck the hard decisions like rationalising our fragmented, expensive school estate and civil servants guard the status quo and their respective fiefdoms, schools leaders are left to make it all work with shrinking budgets, assertive unions and inadequate powers to implement improvement strategies.”

I continue to believe that the education world is deeply indebted to the people who have stepped up to lead our schools. I know from personal experience how demanding and difficult the role of headship can be but also how rewarding it is to make a difference to the life chances of young people.  It has been impressive to see how they have coped with the challenges posed by the pandemic, balancing the need to keep pupils and staff safe while minimising the damage to young people’s education. The pandemic has presented an unforeseen extra layer of difficulty to the role of school leadership in terms of organising classroom life, staff management and the disruption to examinations and school transfer.

I have commented during the pandemic on these issues and we have already seen how quickly standard measures of achievement can be questioned when assessment methods which we have all taken for granted for so long have to be suspended. There is already media chatter about the risk of grade inflation as we analyse this year’s A Level and GCSE results based on teacher assessment.

I agree that the current examination system is not perfect and that it is stressful for children, but it has delivered reliable measures of how much pupils have learned and achieved, and the rigour and discipline which it imposes does help develop both the mental and emotional strength needed to succeed in adult and working life. The fact that some children underachieve is a separate problem which demands an urgent look at how society is responding to the effects of deprivation on the future life chances of disadvantaged groups.

At the time of writing in 2016 shortage of money was dominating life in schools. I commented then;

“It has long been a source of concern in Northern Ireland that the global education budget here is top sliced by 41% before any money actually reaches schools. Looking enviously at other parts of the UK, school leaders see that figure at a much lower level there, with often over 80% of education monies going directly to the classroom. So why is there such a difference between them and us and can anything be done about it?”

Probably top of the list of reasons is still the huge school transport bill. Schools outside the major urban areas simply could not survive without this support and indeed to remove it would further depopulate rural areas already suffering from the out-migration of young people in search of work in the cities and abroad. Of course the elephant in the room, namely our duplicated, segregated schools estate remains in place and no amount of argument is going to change that any time soon. 

Ironically the pandemic has presented opportunities for change as well as a multitude of problems. As with change in the health service, change in the education system is only possible when political cover exists for policy makers to be radical and take decisions which, while correct, will displease voters. The pandemic showed how decisions can be taken quickly when necessity demands. It focused minds on the reality that we do not now, nor will we ever have, the financial resources to improve the provision of our public services without radical re-structuring. So what has to happen to allow change to be pushed through against vocal public objection?

The answer may come as a consequence of the pandemic. The years of Tory austerity which reduced the budgets of hospitals and schools in real terms may seem like the good old days compared to the financial reckoning which is coming down the tracks to pay for the borrowing government had to do to meet the cost of the lockdowns and fighting Covid 19. Faced with increasingly unacceptable waiting lists and chronic school underfunding the public may reluctantly accept change to the status quo.

It is not just about funding what we currently have, however. More than 200 experts led by UCL Professor of Political Economy, Sir Richard Blundell have produced a report published by The British Academy in March 2021, commissioned by Sir Patrick Valance the Chief Scientific Advisor entitled The COVID decade: Understanding the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19. It highlights the fact that rebuilding the economy and reducing inequality post-COVID will require a massive reorganisation of public spending. The report forecasts that significant intervention will be needed to avoid acceleration towards poorer health, deteriorating social and economic outcomes, and a more extreme pattern of inequality in education and employment.

Professor Blundell recommends that a key area for joined-up policy making will be in building digital infrastructure. He argues that “We need to make up for lost learning and lost skills and to help facilitate people’s efforts to engage in the post-pandemic economy. One aspect of lost learning, and indeed of poverty, is lack of access to technology.” He suggests that, “To achieve the shifts we’re recommending, we are not necessarily talking about new money but more a reorganisation of what we prioritise for spending.”
Smarter public spending is key to COVID recovery | UCL News - UCL – University College London

This new world that we are moving into with all its uncertainties will require strong political leadership on a par with that displayed during the pandemic. Just like the initiative in the aftermath of World War 2 which established the NHS in 1947, we too now need to create a fairer more caring society where no one is left behind. A radical reorganisation of public spending is therefore the inescapable conclusion. Will we be prepared to pay for it and vote for it?


This article is correct at 11/08/2021

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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