Lockdown: Most Serious Educational Disruption in a Lifetime

13 Apr

I         The Good, Bad and Ugly

Times of crises bring out the best and worst of human nature.   We have seen amazing acts of kindness coming from all quarters.  Neighbours, for instance, have marshalled their resources offering to support the elderly, the sick and the housebound in a range of matters.

Daniel Kaufman, Senior Fellow, Global Economy and Development, wrote from Washington, D.C. that he ventured out briefly on 18 March 2020 “to the store a block away, estimating that the weekly truck may have come to partly replenish the empty shelves”.  He and his wife needed an item in short supply, a hand sanitizer bottle.  He asked at the counter whether the pharmacy had any.   The staff members replied that the last few bottles had been sold.   A young woman, who was paying at the next counter, turned to him, opened her bag, and quickly handed him a small bottle of hand sanitizer. He resisted at first, telling her that it was truly hers and that she also very much needed to use it. She insisted, saying that she had two more bottles, and emphasized that at a difficult time like this they needed to share.

He thanked her profusely, observing a social distance.  As they were leaving, a man in his eighties, using a cane, came towards Kaufman, “beaming at the sight of the just-gifted little bottle” in his hand.  He asked if many were still left on the shelf and if so, where he could find them.  Kaufman replied that there weren’t any and offered him the one sold to him by the kind, young woman.   She heard the exchange, went towards them, opened her bag again, took out the second bottle and told the elderly gentleman that he could have hers (and not Kaufman’s).  Each one of the three now had one bottle of hand-sanitizer.  Kaufman was touched.

Outside the store, he saw her. They introduced themselves to each other.  He said he was Chilean and enquired whether she was Canadian. She courteously replied that she was a U.S. citizen. She wondered aloud why Kaufman thought she was Canadian. He explained that there was a new term that had been coined in Canada: “It is solidarity and mutual help turned into concrete community action, which quickly spread through Canada.” She appreciated the exchange, and she asked whether Kaufman and his wife needed any help, and likewise he asked her. They parted.

Having emanated from Wuhan in China, Coronavirus has spread like wildfire blown by lusty winds right across the world.  After China, Italy and Spain were hit the hardest.  At the time of writing, citizens of both countries were quarantined.  Italy that invented opera.  In an amateur video, the Italian Air Force flew a single jet, representing the virus, meeting other fighter jets streaming the colours of the Italian flat.  And Pavarotti sang: “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot with the lyrics: “We shall overcome.”

In Canada – by 16 March 2020, 35 Facebook groups were set up in three days to serve communities in Ottawa, Halifax and Annapolis County in Nova Scotia.  At the time of writing, over 30,000 members had signed up. They did so to offer help to others within their communities, especially those who were more at risk of health complications. Acts of kindness have ranged from delivering soup to the elderly in the UK to an exercise class for quarantined residents on Spain’s balconies.

Sadly, there is a downside to human nature when crises hit us.  We saw considerable evidence of this in March 2020 in the UK when supermarket shelves were emptied by people not caring a fig for their neighbours and fellow shoppers.   Trolleys were filled with toilet paper, handwash bottles and disinfectants.    This led supermarkets (finally) to reserve an hour each morning for pensioners.   Stories abound of people emptying shelves and/or arguing over packets of pasta.

However, thank heavens, there are charities that have spearheaded help to people in poverty. On 15 March 2020, Beauty Banks, one such charity, that supplies essential toiletries to the poor, launched an emergency virus-related appeal.

II       Impact on Schools

Schools and academies in England are in (virtual) lockdown. This is unsurprising given the danger the virus poses to staff.  (Youngsters are better equipped internally than older people to combat the disease.)  Ms Wendy Jacobs, headteacher of Roose Primary School in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, died after being treated in intensive care at Furness General Hospital.

Despite this, headteachers and many staff members are taking time out to open institutions for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. Key workers have included the following.

  • People working in the Health Service and Social Care such as doctors, nurses, midwives, paramedics, social workers, care workers and other frontline health and social care staff including volunteers, the support and specialist staff required to maintain the UK’s health and social care sector, and those working as part of the health and social care supply chain, including producers and distributers of medicines and medical and personal protective equipment.
  • Nursery and teaching staff, social workers and those specialist educational professionals who must remain active during the Covid-19 response.
  • Those essential to the running of the justice system, religious staff, charities and workers delivering key frontline services, others responsible for the management of the deceased, and journalists and broadcasters who are providing a public service.
  • Local and national government officers who are effectively providing a Covid-19 response or delivering essential public services such as the payment of benefits.
  • Those involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery as well as workers providing other key goods (for example hygienic and veterinary medicines).
  • The police and support staff, Ministry of Defence civilians, contractors and armed forces personnel (critical to the delivery of key defence and national security outputs and essential to the response to the Covid-19 pandemic), fire and rescue service employees (including support staff), National Crime Agency staff, those maintaining border security, prison and probation staff and other national security roles, including those overseas.
  • Those who will keep the air, water, road and rail passenger and freight transport modes operating during the Covid-19 response, including those working on transport systems through which supply chains pass.
  • Staff needed for essential financial services provision (including but not limited to workers in banks, building societies and financial market infrastructure), the oil, gas, electricity and water sectors (including sewerage), the information technology and data infrastructure sector, as well as key staff working in the civil nuclear, chemicals, telecommunications (including but not limited to network operations, field engineering, call centre staff, IT and data infrastructure, 999 and 111 critical services), postal services and delivery, payments providers and waste disposal sectors.

The Department for Education, which has produced advice, describes vulnerable children as children who are supported by “social care, those with safeguarding and welfare needs, including children-in-need plans, on child protection plans, ‘looked after’ children, young carers, disabled children and those with education health and care plans.

About 10% of the children qualified for places at the so-called “skeleton schools/academies”.  Such an institution may not be a child’s regular one as it will be up to institutions and the local authorities to have made consortia arrangements.  Schools/Academies arranged to issue vouchers to those on free school meals (FSMs).  It could be possible that the government will set up a national voucher scheme.

In addition to the above advice, the government has produced guidance to educational settings about Covid-19 which can be found here.

Like schools and academies, nurseries and other child-care providers were ordered to close, albeit remain partially open to look after vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers.   Local authorities were asked to continue paying for all childcare places under the 30-hour-a-week scheme for three-and-four-year olds and 15 hours a week for two-year-olds from low-income families.  However, nurseries and childminders lost fees paid by parents of young children and for additional hours.

The end-of-Key Stage 2 Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) were cancelled for pupils at the top end of primary schools.

Meanwhile, more than 4.5 million pupils had been preparing to take GCSEs, and a quarter of a million to take A levels.  These exams have been scrapped.  The government is working on a replacement assessment system based on the work that young people (preparing for their GCSEs and A levels) had been doing, described as “evidence assessment”.  This includes the results of mock exams, predicted grades and classwork – all put into a smorgasbord to create proxy grades with the examination boards ratifying them – based on several pieces of course work.  The appeals process will continue to exist.

Universities will accept whatever system the government sets up on assessment.  Additionally, they will honour the offers they made prior to the outbreak of the pandemic.   Undoubtedly, all will not get their first choices. However, Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said that it would try to create a fair admissions system which would allow 18-year-olds to progress to university.

“One option being considered is looking at how offers could be honoured,” Alistair Jarvis, head of Universities UK, said. “It wouldn’t be possible to give everyone their first choice. We would need a system to allocate places. It is very tricky, but these are unprecedented times.”

Schools and academies are unhappy bunnies.  Headteachers criticised the government’s decision to scrap exams.  They urged the government to replace GCSEs and A levels with some form of objective testing.  According to The Times, Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University and former headteacher of Wellington College, described abandoning exams as “a mistake”.  “With no A levels, it will be nearly impossible to decide fairly which students should get into university,” he said. “Predicted A-level grades are wrong four times out of five and discriminate against the already disadvantaged.”

With regard to GCSEs, he deeply regretted that the five years of study youngsters put in would have been in vain, because, without the examinations and knowledge of the outcomes – i.e. the grades these young people attain – they will feel “cheated”.  It would be “like telling an athlete who has been preparing for the big race for several years that s/he cannot compete.  It is devasting.”

Dr Saima Rana, the Principal of Westminster Academy, felt “desperately worried” about her pupils’ welfare, with the purpose and structure of their day disappearing.   “Telling students now that there are no exams stops their whole purpose in learning. We have also told them that they are not at risk of being very ill if they get the virus. They will be out on the streets and gang violence and crime will rise,” she said.

It is all very well for educationists to moan and groan, but the nation is caught between a rock and a hard place.  The choice is not between what is right and wrong, good and bad, but rather between wrong and more wrong and bad and worse.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) said: “Flexibility within the admission process will be enhanced and extended to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and the announcement that there will be no exams this year.”

There are millions of children around the world that are out of school because of the pandemic.  The suffering that our children are experiencing is by no means unique.  Other countries such as Germany, France, Italy (as was China) are or have been in lockdown too.

III      Adversity has sweet uses

The pandemic has brought out the best and worst in us.   There are many cases of people indulging in selfish acts – such as people in supermarkets overloading their trolleys with a range of items, as if they were going to be holed into the little boxes for the rest of their lives.  Equally, people and organisations have stepped up doing good deeds.  Through our front door, someone slipped in a leaflet that ran:

Finchley Covid-19 Help – Free Service Run by Volunteers

Do you need help self-isolating?

We can help with picking up shopping, providing useful information, sending post or just a friendly chat.  Please call (two mobile numbers given) or email us at ……. Or submit a request for assistance at …….. and we will try our best to connect you to a local volunteer.

If you can help, join the amazing volunteers by signing up at signup.mutualaid.co.uk

There were other outstanding examples of generosity at this difficult time.

  • British Petroleum offered free fuel for the emergency services.
  • Iceland opened its stores early for elderly shoppers. Other supermarkets followed suit.
  • L’Oreal began making hand-sanitizers and hydroalcoholic gels.
  • Hall and Woodhouse, the Dorset-based brewer and pub group, gave four-week rent-free holiday to tenants.
  • McDonalds, the burger giant, offered free drinks to NHS, Council and emergency services workers.
  • Guinness–Diageo, owner of the Irish brand, allocated £1 million to help pubs cover the wages of bar staff with a maximum of £600 each.
  • Spire Healthcase, owner of 39 hospitals and eight clinics, used resources to help the NHS during the outbreak.
  • The Communications Workers’ Union called off its strike against Royal Mail.

Football stars, who are frequently ridiculed because of their high earnings, have also been digging deep in time and money.

  • Jose Mourniho, Tottenham’s manager, spent time with Age UK and Love Your Doorstep in Enfield, preparing food parcels and other items to deliver to the vulnerable and sick.
  • Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, formerly of Manchester United and currently sports commentators, have given NHS staff free access to their hotels in Manchester. At the time of writing (25 March 2020), 35 had checked in.
  • Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, agreed to pay for NHS workers at Chelsea’s Millennium Hotel at Stamford Bridge for a minimum of two months.
  • Wilfried Zaha, the Crystal Palace and Ivory Coast centre forward, offered 50 flats he owns to frontline medical staff.
  • Andrew Robertson, the Scottish captain who plays left back for Liverpool, donated to food banks in Glasgow.

One of the most heartening features of this pandemic crisis (for me at least) has been the way the nation has responded to the government’s appeal for volunteers on 24 March 2020 to help the 1.5 million vulnerable people who self-isolated in order to check the spread of Covid-19. Within 24 hours, over half-a-million did so – reacting to the greatest peacetime crisis in most of our lifetimes.  The number rose to over 700,000.  The British have been at the forefront of volunteering over time.  During this crisis they have upped the ante.

The volunteers have been carrying out essential tasks that have helped the NHS to run more smoothly, and directly assisted the vulnerable, despite their having no medical training. They have been collecting shopping and medication and giving support on the phone to those enduring the painful loneliness of self-isolation. They are transporting patients who discharged from hospital and no longer at risk.   At the time of writing, they continue to do so.

David Cameron’s launch of his Big Society project in 2010 stuttered.  It took a pandemic to make this into a reality.  William Beveridge, the architect of the post-war welfare state, invoked the spirit of voluntarism in 1948 when he said: “Voluntary actions outside one’s home, individually and in association with other citizens, for bettering one’s own life and that of one’s fellows, are the distinguishing marks of a free society.”

Conservative governments have been previously ridiculed for being uncaring.  Margaret Thatcher said: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who during the publication of this article was still at St Thomas’s Hospital in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) – took a different tack.  He and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor just weeks into the job, effectively nationalised the workforce by promising to pay 80% of the wages of employees who would otherwise have been laid off. I scratched my head when I read what Rachel Sylvester wrote in The Times (24 March 2020), i.e. that Sunak “won plaudits from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) as he wrote a public-spending blank cheque, pledging to do ‘whatever it takes’ to protect businesses on top of the billions of pounds he has already allocated to companies, individuals, infrastructure and the NHS.”

Even Len McCluskey, the left-wing general secretary of the Unite union, described the government’s actions as “historic, bold and very necessary”.  He would certainly agree that the pandemic has brought out the best in this government.

Covid-19 has given us space and time to spend with our nearest ones and have those conversations that we have been putting off, to meditate and reflect, to opt out of the rat race  when the rat race is temporarily over.  With a dramatic decrease in road, water and air traffic, dealing with the climate change crisis has become manageable as the air quality has improved and the water less polluted to enable marine life to flourish once more.

In William Shakespeare’s As you like it, (Act II, Scene I) Duke Senior, who was banished to the Forest of Arden, tells his few loyal followers who joined him in exile:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,

Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a previous jewel ion his head;

And this our life exempt from public haunt,

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

I would not change it.

Life had been a crazy rat-race.  We had turned ourselves into humans doing rather than human beings.  The pandemic has given us a chance to meditate, time to catch up on reading and space to be with partners and close family members.  Covid-19 – an invisible evil – has had its good uses, albeit it has taken a toll of human life.  I feel confident that we will come out of the black tunnel a better human race, one that would have learnt to value those aspects of life that are priceless rather than materials and goods with price tags.



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