Education after Covid-19
30 April 2020
Opinion: As the trillions of dollars that have been conjured to bailout the economy have to be recouped, and as an over-heating world tries to get back to normal, we may see the rise of alternative visions and models of schooling and education, argues Professor John Morgan.
As the crisis of Covid-19 unfolds, it is becoming clear that as well as a crisis of public health, it is one of both economy and society. And in education, it has had a dramatic impact at all levels.
By the end of March, 1.3 billion schoolchildren across the globe were affected by school closures, that’s 80 percent of the global school population. Teaching in many universities had moved online, national exams had been cancelled, and educational infrastructure such as galleries, museums and libraries were closed.
Within educational policy circles, many see Covid-19 as an opportunity, because it could deliver a modernising jolt to a system stuck in the past. Thus, Andreas Schleicher, the head of education at the OECD, commented last week that, “It’s a great moment … all the red tape that keeps things away is gone and people are looking for solutions that in the past they did not want to see.” He believes students will take ownership over their learning, understand more about how they learn, what they like, and what support they need.
Schleicher is the darling of those educators who grumble about the pace of change in schools and education, which they regard as stuck in the mass production mode rather than embracing the prospects for digital learning and a more diverse, culturally relaxed society.
The ‘re-schoolers’ have taken to heart the neoliberal mantra that we should ‘never let a serious crisis go to waste’ and have argued that Covid-19 represents an opportunity. Platform capitalists and EdTech companies are rubbing their hands in anticipation.
Before we rush to embrace these changes though, we should take a more critical look at where they come from.
We live in the schooled society, one in which it is assumed that education is a positive force for good, both for individuals and for society as a whole. This society is an achievement of the modern world, especially mass education that developed after the Second World War.
In the ‘Long Boom’ from the 1950s to the late 1960s, educational expansion was underpinned by two main goals. First, to prepare young people to take their place in the world of work. Second, to prepare young people to become ‘good citizens’, to take an interest in what was happening in the world, or, if you like, ‘to read their daily newspaper’ with interest and intelligence.
The economic conditions were supportive of these general educational goals; this was a time when you could get jobs without qualifications and many left school at the earliest opportunity to take up these abundant jobs. Teachers were given a degree of freedom over curriculum, teaching approach and assessment and the system was funded from the public purse.
From the late 1960s, though, this approach to education began to fray. The recessions of the 1970s resulted in lower average economic growth rates and moves to reduce the size of the public sector. Education was more narrowly defined as preparation for the global economy, and work was changing, so students had to be flexible and willing to deal with the shocks of periodic unemployment. The ‘ideal’ student was the go-getting, entrepreneur, willing to take risks.
We live in the schooled society, one in which it is assumed that education is a positive force for good, both for individuals and for society as a whole.
This era saw the growth of educational fundamentalism, the belief that education was the solution to many of society’s ills. In the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the importance of “education, education, education” and how many of us could disagree?
The irony was that returns on education were getting smaller (the falling rate of learning), as evidenced by credential inflation and the fact that many students now had ‘qualifications without jobs’.
The economic shock of 2008 threatened to challenge the fundamentalist faith in education. Suddenly things didn’t look so great for ‘Generation Debt’, and in many countries there was the spread of precarity, the delayed transition from childhood to adulthood, reliance (for the lucky ones) on the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ and the explosion of debt.
But in the absence of alternatives, governments, universities and school leaders have urged students to keep faith that, if only they apply themselves to their studies, get their qualifications and keep adding lines to their CVs, the economy will reward them.
In the meantime, rising levels of social inequality, an iniquitous housing market, ‘bullshit jobs’ and an ever more visible climate emergency are all testing this faith, and, as the impacts of Covid-19 unfold, it may turn out that young people have other ideas.
As the trillions of dollars that have been miraculously conjured to bailout the economy have to be recouped, and as an over-heating world tries to get back to normal, we may well see the rise of alternative visions and models of schooling and education.
John Morgan is a professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland, and the head of Critical Studies in Education.
Julianne Evans | Media adviser
Mob: 027 562 5868