These are the most extraordinary times. At the start of 2020, almost nobody could have anticipated the extent, and the manner, in which the world has been turned upside down by a virus that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and left nobody unaffected.
It is hard to imagine that any good can come from such an experience – the impact on lives and livelihoods is incalculable and yet, as with any crisis, opportunities co-exist with threats and possibilities for reconstruction emerge from disruption and destruction. The possibilities quickly became apparent as the effect of the pandemic immediately highlighted the extraordinary efforts of health workers, in all their myriad roles, working together in the most difficult circumstances to exemplify the essence of public service values. Moreover, as the pandemic developed, societies everywhere were reminded that the real key workers were those who work tirelessly, often with little praise, to maintain essential public services.
Education workers – teachers and all the personnel in education institutions who make sure students are provided with a high-quality experience, have found themselves at the sharp end of the struggle against the coronavirus pandemic. Maintaining face to face provision for the vulnerable and the children of key workers, while also providing online learning to students whose schools were locked down, has required efforts on a heroic scale. Working to ensure that when schools re-open they only do so when it is safe, and when students, communities and education workers can be confident that adequate safeguards are in place, similarly represents the best of public service values.
And yet it is important to remind ourselves that these are the same workers who have shouldered the costs of an economic crisis that cut deep in 2008, and which continues to cast a long shadow. In many parts of the world, public expenditure on education is only just returning to the levels that prevailed before the financial crisis more than a decade earlier. Throughout this time, education workers have sought to compensate for austerity by trying to cover over the cracks of education systems that have been starved of the investment required to deliver the services all students deserve. Meanwhile, education workers have endured wage stagnation, pension cuts, increased precarity and inexorably increasing workloads.
Privatisation distorts values
At its worst, the efforts of governments to drive down public expenditure have been matched by the incentives offered to private and commercial organisations to step in and provide the core education services that are properly the responsibility of government. Where this has happened (and it has happened, in some form, to some extent, almost everywhere) education systems have not only been starved of the public resources they need, but they have been infected by the spread of market-driven values that privilege competition over collaboration, and profit over people. In England, for example, governments have treated the country as a laboratory to recklessly experiment with transforming public education into a ‘system’ driven my market forces.
The country has now experienced this ‘market fundamentalism’ for many years and the consequences have just been brilliantly exposed by my colleague Pat Thomson in her new book ‘School Scandals: Blowing the Whistle on the Corruption of our Education System’ (Policy Press, 2020). In her book, Professor Thomson sets out clearly the myriad ways in which marketisation has been absorbed into the pores of the English public education system and has distorted the fundamental values it is based on. In some cases, the lack of transparency and opportunities for profiteering have resulted in naked criminality. However, much more widespread, and insidious, is the creep of market values that leech into every part of the system, at huge human cost. Education workers experience ever-increasing workloads and bullying management.
Dissent is equated with disloyalty and workers are treated accordingly. Meanwhile, students are not seen as individuals but treated as assets or liabilities. Those who are likely to do well in exams (and league tables) are valued, while their less fortunate peers, including those who have additional needs, are seen as problems.
Teachers taking the lead
The coronavirus crisis, however, has provided a moment when a change of direction becomes possible. Of course, there is nothing inevitable that the outcome of this moment will be positive. The pandemic has accelerated the use of technology in education and global ed-tech businesses with more resources than most Ministries of Education now lie in wait, ready to seize on the opportunity the pandemic has provided for them.
However, this is also a moment when the education profession can seize the initiative. Education workers have delivered during the pandemic, and their efforts attest to the importance of well-funded, high quality, sustainable education for all. This is a moment when a bold and ambitious campaign for high quality public education for all can begin to shift the global policy narrative on education.
World Teachers Day 2020 is fast approaching, with its theme: ‘Taking the Lead’. Teachers have taken the lead during the pandemic and shown what can be achieved, even when politicians fail to take responsibility and fail to provide teachers with the support and resources they need. Now is the time to really take the lead - by acting collectively and organising around a much more hopeful and optimistic prospectus.
This may be a once in a generation opportunity – the education profession must take the lead and seize it.