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A (very) inconvenient truth?

Jack Bryne Stothard, Institute of Education, University of Derby

At the beginning of January the prime minister claimed that reopening schools was safe and that the benefits of children being in school were ‘huge’ (BBC News, 2021). While educational practitioners, teaching unions and councils in England called for a delay in the reopening of schools, the prime minister repeatedly argued that the decision would be ‘driven by public health considerations and by the massive importance of education’ (BBC News, 2021). In this extremely brief exposition, I offer an alternative narrative: one which seeks not only to challenge the transparency of government claims around the educative value of schools remaining open during this period of lockdown, but one that also suggests the existence of a more troubling issue. To do this, I return once again to the piercing methods of Michel Foucault (1997), utilising some genealogical ways of thinking about this topic.

‘I offer an alternative narrative: one which seeks not only to challenge the transparency of government claims around the educative value of schools remaining open during this period of lockdown, but one that also suggests the existence of a more troubling issue.’

These genealogical tools enable discourses to emerge that challenge and, possibly, disqualify those circulating, commonsensical knowledges that proliferate throughout educational and political spheres. My hope is that ‘a whole series of knowledges that have been disqualified as… naïve knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity’ (Foucault, 1997, p. 7) can emerge. I present some contemplations of ‘what people know at a local level…’ (Foucault, 1997, p. 8) to reignite vital discussions. To do so I refer to data which pertains to two particular areas of concerns with regards to our young people in the UK.

Local knowledges and discourses tell of an ever-pressing danger which deserves continued attention: poverty and the plight of young carers. The Legatum Institute (2020, p. 2) is in no doubt that ‘poverty has risen because of the Covid-19 crisis’, and a briefing published by the institute highlights that while ‘government policy has insulated many families from poverty’ (2020, p. 4) during the pandemic, ‘UK poverty is a significant long-term issue’ with an estimated rise in the number of children living in poverty from 70,000 to 120,000 by winter (2020, p. 3). Meanwhile, the Carers Trust (2020) has highlighted the enormous impact Covid-19 has had on young carers in our society: ‘most described feeling stressed, unable to cope and overwhelmed by the new and increased pressures they face…’ (2020, p. 3) with some young people caring ‘for over 90 hours per week during the pandemic’ (2020, p. 5). Without support, education may become a luxury, with ‘41% of young carers [saying] they didn’t have enough time to spend on schoolwork’ (2020, p. 11).

Perhaps the (very) inconvenient truth about school closures is that it foregrounds the true extent to which our young people are subject to a range of challenges and dangers as well as questions as to whether our education and social care sectors can cope. In many cases, education plays a vital role in shielding our children from poverty and supporting them in difficulties – a role that is not so widely publicised or acknowledged. While a member of parliament asked parents to report schools to Ofsted during lockdown (Turner, 2021), it seems fitting that parents have reacted unfavourably to that MP’s requests, instead praising educational practitioners for the work they do in stabilising the very fabric of our society. Perhaps it is time for a new discourse to emerge, one that acknowledges the role that our teachers and schools play in holding back the ever-increasing tides of inequality in our society. Indeed, as well as places of learning, our schools are increasingly becoming a life raft for many young people who are drowning in the surge of inequality. We can ask: what is the real reason the prime minister wants our children in schools, and what does he have to address if they are not?


References

BBC News. (2021, January 3). Primary schools: Send children to school on Monday, says PM. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55521580

Carers Trust. (2020). My future, my feelings, my family. https://carers.org/downloads/what-we-do-section/my-future-my-feelings-my-family.pdf

Foucault, M. (1997). Society must be defended. Picador.

Legatum Institute. (2020). Briefing: Poverty during the Covid-19 crisis. https://li.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Legatum-Institute-briefing-on-poverty-during-the-Covid-crisis.pdf

Turner, C. (2021, January 6) Report schools to Ofsted if children not given enough work in lockdown, says Gavin Williamson. Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/01/06/report-schools-ofsted-children-not-given-enough-work-lockdown/