Don’t look up: Ignoring the looming crisis in public education
In the movie satire Don’t Look Up, a deadly comet threatens to hit earth. Two astronomers recognise the impending disaster, but their warnings remain unheeded. The US President, experts and the media refuse to engage with facts, imploring us all ‘not to look up’. Such blatant denials of unacceptable truths – war, vaccines, climate change – result in an existential crisis where distraction is de rigueur. Too often crises in public education have been hidden in plain sight. Action is taken against those who dare to investigate, forcing the gaze from the actualities of a failing system. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi actively called out criticism of the Prime Minister by school children. Ministers who fail are rewarded. Public education is an outlier soon to be replaced by privatised providers. Universal access is denied. Children are subjected to harsher inequalities; knowledge is seen as a commodity exposed to the vagaries of unaccountable politicians. We are implored not to look. But look we must, in all directions, at: (1) the crisis of education as the great experiment; (2) the crisis in pedagogy and teacher burnout; (3) the crisis of education for climate change; and (4) the looming disaster of increasing inequalities.
‘Too often crises in public education have been hidden in plain sight. Action is taken against those who dare to investigate, forcing the gaze from the actualities of a failing system.’
1. Looming crisis: education as the great experiment
Education in England has been the subject of a 40-year ideological experiment in marketisation and neoconservatism. However, both of these work against the notion of education as a common good (Gunter & Courtney, 2020). The results are in for this reform package. Like pieces of comet burning up in the atmosphere, these have not survived rigorous, research-based scrutiny. For example, we know that local authority maintained schools obtain better inspection outcomes than academies. This isn’t the only indicator of a good education, but it certainly matters to policymakers. Academisation aligns with a neoconservative belief that provision should compete in a hierarchy (Courtney, 2015). This impetus recurrently reanimates grammar schooling as a viable ‘part of the mix’ from which parents should choose. However, grammar schools impede social mobility. These failures are constructed as successes: academies advance education as a public good; grammar schools are a ladder for the poor. Neither experiment stands up.
2. Looming crisis in pedagogy
Teacher recruitment and retention are in a downward spiral. Nadhim Zahawi claims to want teachers’ ‘energy and expertise’, providing ‘500,000 training opportunities’; ‘£30,000 starting salaries’; more for those ‘most important’ STEM subjects. Distracting us from declining trainee applications; stagnating pay; unmanageable workloads; new teachers leaving; and experienced colleagues looking for the exit (Fullard, 2021). The ‘market review’ of initial teacher education (ITE) is a needless diversion which could result in fewer higher education providers being revalidated, with some refusing to re-apply in protest at the narrow pedagogy. Meanwhile, the contract for the £121-million National Institute of Teaching has been awarded to a consortium of four multi-academy trusts. ITE is moving to an apprenticeship model of off-the-shelf training for a disposable workforce, delivered by private limited companies for public money. This crisis in pedagogy will hit disadvantaged children the hardest.
3. Looming crisis in educating for climate change
The Paris Climate Agreement limited global warming to a 1.5°C increase because the prospect of 2°C was considered catastrophic. In conjunction with COP26, the IPCC found that without immediate action on greenhouse gases, the chance to keep warming to these levels will soon evaporate. Amidst the furore of COP26, Britain’s own schools were found lacking adequate formal teaching provision. UK policy assumes future citizens do not need to be educated to change their consumption habits and the glaring lack of a corresponding curricular policy to teach about climate change is unforgivable. Children currently learn more from climate activist Greta Thunberg. The responsibility and the opportunity for educational leaders to do what government cannot has never been greater.
‘UK policy assumes future citizens do not need to be educated to change their consumption habits and the glaring lack of a corresponding curricular policy to teach about climate change is unforgivable.’
4. Looming crisis in inequalities in education
Claims of ‘lost learning’ due to Covid-19 have led to demands for ‘catch-up’ recovery programmes. Ignored are the ways in which Covid has increased educational inequalities, both in the UK and globally, through the widening of income inequalities and the digital divide. Online learning has been publicised as a gain that will ‘permanently change how education is delivered’, but again inequalities are ignored: even when access to technology is secured, it is assumed that it provides a solution for all learners, whereas for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), those technologies may make matters worse, rather than better. Teachers at SEND schools say they feel ‘forgotten’, because national guidance didn’t apply to them. Other professional voices are also ignored, where the senior UK government education minister prefers to attend a political fundraiser, rather than engage in explanation, discussion and debate with the largest professional association representing headteachers.
Obfuscation and denying the reality only adds to the crisis. Searching for truth and presenting it renders others able to see the facts. Armed with these proofs the dangers are exposed and can be dealt with in public calmly and expertly, thus ensuring the crisis is averted – as any crisis can be.
Courtney, S. J. (2015). Mapping school types in England. Oxford Review of Education, 41(6), 799–818. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2015.1121141
Fullard, J. (2021). The pandemic and teacher attrition: An exodus waiting to happen? Education Policy Institute. https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/the-pandemic-and-teacher-attrition-an-exodus-waiting-to-happen/
Gunter, H. M., & Courtney, S. J. (2021). A new public educative leadership? Management in Education, 35(4), 194–198. https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020620942506