Crisis and Opportunity: Coronavirus and Education

EDITION: Bad New Times.

The capitalist state is attempting to use the Covid-19 crisis in schools to push narrow, traditionalist pedagogy and enrich their friends. Educators must articulate radical new futures.

Like most of us, I wasn’t expecting a competent and caring handling of the COVID-19 crisis, in education as in everything else. I grew up knowing that the Tories didn’t care about education, and I trained as a teacher just as the Gove reforms were achieving new heights of intentional wrecking. But, like many of us, I couldn’t help being staggered by the sheer scale, the sheer brazen callous ghoulishness, of the response. During a terrible week at the end of March, which was probably the worst I’ve ever worked as a teacher, Boris Johnson let schools remain open for an unconscionably long time based on the false assumption that children do not suffer serious symptoms of the virus. This recklessness, combined with widespread discussion of the “herd immunity” strategy—which the Government did not retract until Wednesday of that horrible week—led to the understandable assumption that the government intended to use children as disease vectors to infect the population.1 I teach in a specialist school for students with learning disabilities, where many of our students have co-morbid complex medical conditions: for us, this herd immunity vector plan wasn’t just callous, it was potentially murderous. When schools finally closed, it was an intense relief - but of course, it wasn’t over.

From early on in the school closures, there were rumblings – which began in the right wing press, and then moved quickly towards the centre - that schools needed to reopen. This began as a focus on lazy teachers and obstructive unions, then shifted to a focus on ‘vulnerable children’ who ‘needed’ school to save them from their chaotic (read: poor, read: non-white) households. When the government announced it wanted to reopen schools on June 1st, the teachers’ unions did resist, but only in the gentlest of terms - rather than balloting for a strike, they exhorted the government to ‘release the science’ it was using that recommended a June 1st return. It has been demonstrated over and over that the only science the government has been interested in during this crisis is the economics of the preservation of capital, but the unions’ responses showed no recognition of this, relying on a strategy of “holding the government to account” which was wildly optimistic about the government’s respect for the concept of accountability. And so primary schools did reopen on June 1st. And although the government did quietly give up its plan of reopening primary schools entirely, it has insisted that all schools must open fully from September.

It has been demonstrated over and over that the only science the government has been interested in during this crisis is the economics of the preservation of capital, but the unions’ responses showed no recognition of this.

Crisis and opportunity

I do not know what the consequences of a September re-opening will be for the transmission of the virus - many things remain uncertain, not least when or whether we will undergo a “second wave”, requiring further local and perhaps national closures. But it is clear that the reopening of schools after an unprecedented interruption to children’s schooling provides opportunities, both for good and for harm. Back in April, josie sparrow wrote in this publication about the “tech-driven encroachment of private healthcare into NHS provision”, enabled and expedited from within government under cover of ‘crisis’. A very similar process is underway in education, with the Department for Education seizing the opportunity to expedite changes it has hinted at for a long time, for the benefit of its powerful friends.

In April, while teachers across the country were scrabbling to deliver online teaching, Oak National Academy appeared, backed by the DfE, as an answer to schools’ problems. Although initially presented as a grassroots collective movement - according to its principal, “the vast majority of this is powered by goodwill and volunteers and people lending a hand” - it quickly became clear that this was no spontaneous mutual aid effort. Very shorty after its launch, Oak was awarded a £500,000 grant by the DfE to provide online lessons during the pandemic, and has recently been awarded a further £4.3 million to provide an entire curriculum for 2020-21. There is no record of the process by which this award was made, since there was no tender process. As an investigation by John Morgan in TES magazine notes,

there are some who are alarmed by the nature of the creature that the DfE has helped bring to life, seeing Oak as an enterprise established by a narrow strata of figures from DfE-favoured multi-academy trusts; and as a potential vehicle for the department to promote a “traditionalist” agenda in teaching, or even create the subject matter of a government-approved curriculum.

Morgan’s reporting details the connections of Oak leadership to multi-academy trusts and private organisations known to be already favoured by the DfE. Principal Matt Hood, for example, is a former DfE policy advisor, founder of the Ambition Institute and an independent advisor to the DfE. David Thomas, Oak’s curriculum director, is principal of a secondary school run by the Inspiration Trust, a multi-academy trust founded by Conservative peer and former DfE minister Lord Agnew. Almost every other member of Oak’s entirely white and eighty percent male management team is linked to either the DfE or some form of educational enterprise - in most cases, both. It was recently revealed by independent education reporter Warwick Mansell that the government was approached in late March by the UK Council for Subject Associations, a joint body representing teachers of all major school subjects in the UK, offering “a detailed menu of possibilities of digital support for at-home education during the crisis, from YouTube videos to webinars, live panels, pupil-hosted TV shows, competitions and extensive links to resources” - all for £194,000, a fraction of what was subsequently allocated to Oak. The letter and pitch was apparently acknowledged with a “standard automated email response.”

Aside from the use of a large sum of public money to fund a project run by people closely tied to the DfE in a process with no transparency, the content of Oak’s output should be concerning to anyone who opposes the tightening grip of right-wing pedagogical ideology in our education system. The Oak curriculum aligns closely with pedagogies which the DfE began to favour heavily during Michael Gove’s tenure as Education Secretary in 2013-14: a rigid focus on “knowledge”, and a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on “the best that has been thought and said”. “The best”, of course, is judged according to the preference of rich, white old Etonian education ministers, and appears not to include much creativity or art. The primary curriculum for September 2020 is missing any content for art and design technology. Its pedagogical approach to subjects such as literature is also dry, prescriptive, and limiting, as teacher educator John Yandell observed in his detailed close reading of an Oak English lesson:

in this version of English, the text is a site where a series of abstractions, simultaneously banal and tendentious, about narrative structure and universal themes can be ‘applied’.[…] After the student has provided their answers to the teacher’s questions, there is the opportunity to review their response in the light of the model answer provided by the teacher. And the assumption is that the student will supplement their first attempt with the more detailed ‘information’ provided. As the voiceover informs us, “the thing here is to test that what you’re getting is what I’m getting.

Everything points to a DfE attempt to use this crisis to embolden those who promote a narrow, traditionalist view of pedagogy, forcing it on more and more students and teachers.

This approach very clearly maps onto what the DfE has wanted for years – increased homogeneity, compliance, and rigidity. Of course, it is not compulsory for schools to follow the Oak curriculum. However, as John Morgan notes in TES,

the prospect of likely continued disruption and mass pupil (or teacher) absences in the coming year presents a big opportunity for Oak’s approach to be spread across schools – especially if schools perceive it as a government-approved curriculum, as they look ahead to inspections.

Current Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has already indicated that he will use the crisis as a way to dictate pedagogy in September, insisting that students need to sit in rows facing the front, and not work in groups - nodding to a popular talking point among ’traditionalist’ teachers. Everything points to a DfE attempt to use this crisis to embolden those who promote a narrow, traditionalist view of pedagogy, forcing it on more and more students and teachers.

A recovery curriculum?

It might appear to be some comfort that not all educators are looking towards September with such a rigid and restrictive outlook. Many teachers recognise that, when schools return, we will need to adopt a holistic approach, understanding and addressing our students’ emotional needs. In late April, when a return to school was not yet scheduled, veteran educator Barry Carpenter wrote a blog post entitled “A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic”. In it, he identifies that children returning to school will need “a holistic recovery”, and that educators will need to be responsive to the loss, trauma and anxiety many children have experienced. While I would challenge some of the assumptions in Carpenter’s piece - most notably, that not attending school will automatically have led to deep trauma for a majority of children, when in fact we know that school can be a significant cause of trauma and anxiety - I don’t doubt his genuinely benevolent intentions in writing it. He has, after all, made all his resources, including a podcast, a conference and a website available for free.

Other providers, however, are not so generous. Capitalising on the popularity Carpenter’s resources and the phrase “emotional recovery curriculum” have enjoyed since the original blog post, many private curriculum providers are now selling resources related to emotional recovery. These range from worksheets about feelings at £25 a pack all the way to services like those offered by “Emotion Works”, a consultancy and training organisation who offer a £250 “recovery package” for schools. The package promises “a robust learning programme for your school to support children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing during the transition back to school […] a highly regarded and well-established programme of training and resources for teachers that can be used as a stand-alone or combined approach to help develop emotional literacy and foster resilience”. Emotion Works’ recovery package starts at £250, but can be upsold to packages costing up to £3,000 per year.

Buying in a fixed ‘emotional recovery curriculum’, as a commodity like a purchase order of pencil sharpeners, has worrying implications. Just like the Oak National Academy’s approach, it implies that homogenous ‘learning units’ can be bought and delivered to students, removing agency and responsibility from those doing the delivery. Students’ emotional cannot be anticipated, catalogued and responded to with pre-bought programmes before they even arrive; schools cannot discharge their responsibility to respond to what students are actually feeling onto external consultants. Attending to our students’ emotions when they return will be vital; this requires real attention, time, and flexibility, actions from which these programmes only serve to alienate us.

Pockets of hope - in and against

So far, I have created a grim picture of commercial opportunism during the crisis. But I want to end on a note of hope, because there is some. Although the pandemic has provided opportunities for both traditionalist and ‘progressive’ grift in education, it has also provided space for radical organising. In the past few months, groups like the Radical Education Forum have seen a surge in members, after their online meetings have been joined by educators from around the country and beyond; abolitionist group No More Exclusions has produced reports on the impact of COVID-19 which take into account racialised discrimination and violence, and launched the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators campaign, asking educators to pledge “active commitment to eradicating racism within the UK education system”. In my own interactions with other teachers, I have felt a shift within traditionally liberal and centrist teaching discourse; an awareness seems to be growing that the government does not care about us or our students, does not have our best interests at heart, and will not be coming to save us. As a group, teachers tend to have faith in the state, in institutions, in the Proper Channels; but the Proper Channels and the powers that be have visibly betrayed and abandoned us. For those of us who’ve already experienced state neglect and abandonment outside of our teacher identities, watching this realisation unfold has been personally frustrating at times, but it is also a cause for hope. More teachers are realising that we can’t hope for policy change from a state which doesn’t care about us or our students - we need to act directly, with what we have, from where we are.

In 1979, a group of socialists employed in state occupations - social work, teaching, local government - wrote a pamphlet called In And Against the State, where they detailed how socialists employed in these positions can reconcile an anticapitalist worldview with their entanglement in capitalist relations:

It is of critical importance, then, that we challenge the state not only as an oppressive apparatus that must be destroyed and replaced in the long run; and not only as an institution which provides us with certain needed services and resources in the short run; but also as a form of relations that has an adverse effect on the way we live today. The state is not like a pane of glass - it can’t be smashed in a single blow, once and for all. We are entangled in the web of relations it creates. Our struggle against it must be a continual one, changing shape as the struggle itself, and the state’s response to it, create new opportunities.

The state, and the forces of capital it exists to uphold, have responded industriously to the new opportunities created by COVID. As radical educators we must be equal to them, resisting homogenised and oppressive pedagogies and the commodification of our students’ emotional wellbeing. But we must also create new opportunity ourselves, articulating radical new futures for education - beyond exams, beyond subject disciplines, even beyond schools. We may not be able to smash the glass in a single blow, but we can move outside into the fresh air.

  1. Since we now know that noted eugenicist Dominic Cummings was on the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Emergencies (SAGE), this is not an outlandish theory. 


M Tetrapod (@pancake_puns)

M is a practicing teacher and a researcher whose work focuses on the philosophy and politics of education.