COVID-19 shows the flawed ways societies use education to address inequality
Julian Sefton-Green — 26 August 2020
One of the great successes in the new and emerging public health systems that came out of the Spanish flu pandemic 1918- 21 was New York's decision to keep schools open as a way of maintaining children’s health. By contrast, Covid-19 seems to have deeply unsettled school systems around the world and ravaged opportunities for the current generation of children and young people. As traumatic, dangerous and destructive as the current pandemic has been for teachers, families, employers, politicians and young people themselves, its effect on what we want from school and what school should be has been radical and terrifying in a different kind of way.
At the beginning of the pandemic public concern about school significantly focused on the impact of children being at home for families – mainly, it should be said, mothers – with concern ranging from the comedic to what would turn out to be one of the darkest sides of the lockdown, namely increases in child abuse and online sexual exploitation. Yet, in many settings, family support and child protection have been dwarfed by other concerns.
Reverting to narrow and out-of-date educational purposes
A significant amount of early attention to the effects of lockdown revolved around consequences for the labour market. School closures had knock-on effects on working parents as politicians grappled with the economic implications of de-schooling society. Mass schooling was of course developed in the 19th century significantly as a way of controlling the labour market. And in the early days of the pandemic, some public debate might have given the impression we had travelled back 150 years to a society pondering the problems of not knowing what it wanted to do with its children in order to have access to an available labour force.
A second early concern about closing schools also suggested a simplistic reversion to a core function – namely the capacity of schools to accredit and certify students. Much attention was given to the end of statutory school attendance and the knock-on effects on subsequent stages of the education system, in particular higher education. In many parts of the world there was considerable debate about what standards might mean in an era of no testing and what would be the value of graduating with no terminal examinations. Like concerns with a mobile labour market, public debate about this key function showed how close to the surface these seemingly atavistic roles that school play in society, still are.
By contrast, (and strangely remote from speculation around the science of viruses and the invention of vaccines), public discussion about the University sector mostly revolved around catastrophic business failure resulting from the closing down of the global mobility of university students (and to a lesser extent, staff). The value of non-face-to-face teaching and thus the worth of a degree in general was frequently conceptualised as one of the Jenga blocks being pulled away as the University edifice came tumbling down. In Australia, where I work, the effect of the virus on higher education was compared to the decline of the car industry in that country with resultant negative economic consequences.
Appreciating the purposes of schooling in their proper complexity
All of these responses expose the ways that schools and education systems are significantly
part of complicated relationships with society at large. They show these relationships to be rather different than that imagined by many teachers, professors and education professionals who often focus on the science or craft of teaching and learning. As the pandemic progressed, discussion of its effects on children and young people paid more and more attention to the psychological and social consequences of being denied school. Family abuse, domestic tension, mental health, social isolation, hunger, nutrition, overexposure to ‘screen time’, as well as increases in long-term inequality and the decline of education as a route to social mobility (children being left behind) all became foregrounded for a range of mixed motives and concerns.
Inequalities in access to well-functioning Internet and inequalities between different school structures and systems and severe constraints in the capacities of school systems to shift learning online have all been highlighted as imposing unfair generational burdens whose consequences will unfold over decades.
All of these types of responses exemplify how COVID-19 has intensified and exaggerated fault lines in contemporary societies. They reveal back to us the ways of dealing with inequality that our societies have consistently disguised and ignored. They show absolutely and somewhat ironically that most people's main interest in education is exactly as a means "to compensate for society" (Bernstein, 1970) and how fragile such compensation is for so many people much of the time.
Amidst the carnage and loss that responses to the pandemic are causing in so many people's lives, we should value by its absence something that otherwise has been difficult to measure: the school as a place of togetherness, community, civic identity and participation in civil society. Attention to learning simply as a question of individualised capabilities as opposed to collective faith in education as a public good, shows how impoverished our societies have become when we cannot name, describe or communicate these kinds of positive social values.
Julian Sefton-Green is Professor of New Media Education at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He has worked as an independent scholar and has held positions at the Department of Media & Communication, London School of Economics & Political Science and at the University of Oslo and he is also a visiting Professor at The Playful Learning Centre, University of Helsinki, Finland.