Coping with the physical and mental damage of Covid-19

27 Aug

The summer term of 2020 will be memorable.  Who would have thought that when the new year broke, we would be on the cusp of experiencing the most gruelling time on this planet testing the leaders of schools and academies to the limit?  This is what precisely happened as we approached the end of the spring term.  Having originated in a market in Wuhan, China, at the tail-end of 2019, Covid-19, the virus, leapt from bats to humans.  Since then, this microscopic predator has wreaked havoc on humankind, laying low many people’s lives, devasting the world’s finances and disrupting civilization as we have known it.  The world’s scientists, at the time of writing, are frantically trying to find a cure to fight the enemy and a vaccine to stop it from entering humans and creating more mayhem.  At the earliest, they will not know if they are successful until the year ends and 2021 dawns.

Education – among most aspects of life – has been clobbered by Covid-19.

Schools and academies have been compelled to shut down during the summer term of 2020 and, at the time of writing, are directed to reopen in September 2020.  However, the government has a fight on its hands with the unions, especially as scientists have now discovered that youngsters from the age of 10 upwards can become infected with the virus and worse still, pass it on to adults – teachers, support staff and, of course, their parents.

School and academy leaders have on the one hand to do everything possible guard their communities – pupils and staff – from the virus and, on the other hand, act as “piggy-in-the-middle” between the government that is determined that institutions will open in September and the unions who justifiably fear for the lives of their members.   Their leadership will be severely tested trying to promote peace between two warring factions.

In the middle of it all are the children, who have suffered greatly, the poor and disadvantaged more than the rest.  In my mind’s eye, I see two bulls at war with each other – the government on the one hand and the unions on the other.  The ground on which they do battle are the schools and academies, and the lives that they imperil the most are the children.  I often wish that if they must fight, they take their feuds elsewhere.  However, they don’t, and they can’t.   The curious feature of this conflict is that both sides aver that they take the stance that they do in the best interests of the children.

A study by the Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE) group mentioned that the attainment gap between primary pupils in year 3 widened significantly during the closures. The difference in the score of the pupils in the 25th percentile and that of those on the 75th rose from 190 to 290 points, i.e. 52.6%.  In year 5, the rise was 39%.  The impact for secondary pupils was less stark.  Notwithstanding, the achievement gap of similar sets of pupils in both, years 7 and 9, was 13%.

The findings were based on the results of over 38,500 pupils (2,000 in year 3, 3,900 in year 5, over 24,000 in year 7 and 8,600 in year 9) who took one or two tests both pre- and post-lockdown.

The report warned of the potential impact on students in year 13.  Researchers estimate that around 25% of the entire workforce could have lower skills following the mid-2030s, reducing their earnings for 50 years by 3%, lowering the overall economic growth rate.   These findings are worrying.

Professor Simon Burgess at the University of Bristol and lead author on the report, said: “We know how damaging it is for children to miss out on school. The amount of school already missed owing to the pandemic could impact on their earning potential by around 3% a year throughout their lives and impact on productivity in the UK for decades.”

The report titled Balancing the risks of pupils returning to schools called for the “default policy” of government to keep schools and academies open as much as possible.  Where local spikes arise, immediate remedial action should be taken, states the report. A robust test-and-trace regimen should safeguard all communities.

Any casual observer will know that instead of working together to find a way forward, the government and unions engage in futile battles.  In the red corner, the unions claim that their members – school and academy staff – will fall ill, and, if they do so (apart from the danger of dying), they will not be able to teach the children.  And they are right!  In the blue corner, the government states that the longer children are out of education, the more they – particularly the disadvantaged – will suffer. And it is right!

An observer may well ask: “How can both be right?”  And the answer to that is that the observer is right too.

To ease schools and academies into reopening, the government has now published a blog attempting to answer questions that institutions are likely to ask.  Many sincerely hope that war-war over the pandemic be replaced with jaw-jaw: fight-and-talk less and deploy brain-cells more.   We have a common enemy: Covid-19.  A plea to all to use their energies not to engage in internecine conflict but to do battle with this virus and support our children who have suffered much.

On 23 August 2020, the chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and all their deputies published an open letter to parents spelling out why children should return to the classroom.

They declared the following.

(1)        The chances of children dying from Covid-19 are “exceptionally small” and the

chances of them needing to stay in hospital are “less than a 10th” of the rate for the general population.

(2)        The fatality rate for those aged between 5 and 14 is estimated at 14 per million,

“lower than for most seasonal influenza infections”.

(3)        School attendance is “very important” for children and they face the “certainty of

long-term harm” to “physical and mental health” if they stay away.

(4)        There is “clear evidence” that the great majority of children and teenagers who

catch Covid-19 “have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all”.

(5)        Primary school children have a “significantly lower rate of infection than adults” and

transmission from children to adults is “relatively rare” compared with transmission from adults.

(6)        Teachers are “not at increased risk of dying” compared with workers in other jobs.

In the meantime, those who are on the cusp of moving out of their schools and academies have had testing times without having to go through tests and examinations.  I am, of course, talking about youngsters who were due to sit their A levels, but could not because of the pandemic.  Rather, they were graded by Ofqual, the examinations body, based on a computer algorithm. This was devised as follows.

Schools and academies were asked to provide predicted grades while also ranking their students according to how they had performed in each examination. This was moderated by Ofqual using a statistical model which took account of the school’s/academy’s examination history and the pupils’ examination results.

The upshot was that 40% of the subject assessments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland carried out by the teachers in the schools and academies were downgraded by Ofqual’s computer algorithm.  Altogether, 330,000 students received grades lower than those predicted by their teachers.   Private schools did better than state institutions because of the differential weightings given to their sixth forms, most of whom are much smaller than state schools and academies.

It is surprising that the results overall (despite this model) were better than those of last year.  However, many students felt a real sense of injustice.  Inevitably, several thousands planned to appeal and the parents of some threatened to go to court.

The government introduced the triple lock which was as follows.

(1)        Parents and their children could accept the results.

(2)        In England, pupils could ask their school, academy or college to check whether it made an administrative error when submitting their grades on the basis of which they could ask them to submit appeals to the exam board if they did so.   However, the pupils alone, per se, would not have been able to challenge their grades to the exam boards, relying on the institutions at which they were to do it.

Ofqual signalled that it would be sympathetic if an appeal from the institution could show that the grades were lower than expected because of previous cohorts that were not representative of the current year’s students. However, the process would not have been straightforward.  The mock results had to be “validated” (whatever that meant).

Secretary of State Gavin Williamson said that the appeals would be free of charge, with the government underwriting the costs likely to be between £8m and £15m to avoid “shocking injustices”.    The exam boards would have charged from £9.50 to £25 for each appeal.  However, this could have risen to £150 per grade in a more contentious case.  A school or academy could have passed on the cost to the parents.  The fee, however, would have been refunded if an appeal were to have been successful.

Williamson was critical about what Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, had done, opting for teachers’ predictions, where there would have been “rampant grade inflation”.   He added: “There were no checks and balances in that system; it degrades as a result….”

(3)        Finally, if pupils chose, they could have retaken the paper/s in October.

The complexities of the process spoke of a muddle for which Secretary of State Gavin Williamson was savaged by schools, academies, colleges and commentators.  And well he might. Sir Jon Coles, the Chief Education Officer of the United Learning Trust, raised his concerns with Williamson in early July 2020 about the unfairness of the algorithm that Ofqual was using. However, despite exchanges with Sir Jon in mid-July, Mr Williamson decided to press ahead with his plans, making this a very Laurel-and-Hardy mess.  Except that it was not funny as, in the middle of it all were young people who could well have had their futures ruined.

The attacks on Williamson, many of which came from his own Conservatives colleagues in parliament, had not been pretty.  Sarah Vine, the journalist and wife of Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told LBC on 14 August 2020: “I think we should cut the kids some slack. They’ve had a terrible year. If I had been education secretary, I would probably have placed more trust in the judgment of teachers.”

Former Cabinet Minister David Davis said that government had placed considerable store on social mobility. Yet, it was taking a stance on A level assessments that would militate against this.  “You keep hearing about Red Wall seats – the industrial seats, the seats in the north: they are going to be the ones who, because of the disparity of the system, are going to be most penalised,” he said.  Surprisingly, though there has been a “hoo-haa” about the A level results, Ofqual allowed them to rise by 2% compared to those of 2019.

Some Conservative MPs were reported to have been quoted as saying (in anonymous briefings) that Mr Williamson should face the “guillotine”. His response was “Politicians complaining about these sorts of things is a little bit like fishermen complaining about the sea, isn’t it?”

Eventually, Williamson capitulated deciding to follow the model adopted by Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.  Many were saddened, if not angry, that he engaged in the blame culture and dumped responsibility for the damage done on Ofqual.  The quango is not as independent as he makes it out to be given that he appoints the chair and the chief executive and has the power to dismiss them. He may also recall that in March 2020, he had asked Ofqual to devise an algorithm to determine the A level grades. It advised him of the response it had received from various interested groups in June 2020.

Whoever was responsible, it is now crucial that he arranges for universities – especially those in the Russell Group club – to be appropriately funded for the extra students that they will have to accept because of the larger numbers who have received good A level results than those who would have passed muster with Ofsted’s algorithm.

Two prominent casualties of the imbroglio has been Jonathan Slater, the most senior civil servant in the Department for Education, whom Boris Johnson sacked and Sally Collier, the Chief Executive of Ofqual, who had maintain a professional silence throughout the continuing, regrettable saga, but resigned on the cusp of the new academic year.

It appears that civil servants are becoming the fall guys and gals for the incompetence of the current government ministers.   Mr Slater used to be deputy chief executive and director of education in Islington.  He is the fifth permanent secretary to leave in a short space of time. Sir Philip Rutman resigned as permanent secretary at the Home Office in January this year after he accused the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, of bullying.   Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office said he was stepping down in June and Sir Richard Heaton, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Justice was reported to be standing down in July.  The fifth, Sir Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary and national security adviser was given a £250,000 payout by Boris Johnson (to spend more time with his family) and will be leaving in the nextf

Despite the above, one may be tempted to feel a measure of sympathy for Williamson.  First, it does not appear that Johnson appointed him Secretary of State for Education because of his ability but rather loyalty.  He was cut out to be a fireplace salesman, not an educationist.   In explaining his U turn, he said: “Where there is injoostices we have to act.”

Besides, the problem was that there was no right option in deciding on A level results, given that there were no end-of-year examinations. Going for the Scottish option means that there is real grade inflation.  About 38% of results are now A* or A compared with a previous record of 27% in 2011.  Were he to have plumbed for that from the outset he would have be pilloried for dumbing down standards.

Williamson was damned for what he had done and would have been damned if he did not do.   However, he dumped responsibility on Sally Collier, the Chief Regulator of Ofqual, who has been thoroughly professional by not responding.   Pupils’ grades this year are now those predicted by their schools and academies, unless, of course, the algorithms had given them a higher grade.

And as for the youngsters who would have not secured the grades they had worked for and which had been predicted by their schools and academies?  Was it, in fact, the end of the world?   It should not have been if (like mathematicians) they were able to invert the denominators of failures into the numerators of future successes.  In Worstward, Samuel Beckett put it more sharply: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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