Blog post Part of series: Highlights from the first 1,000 BERA Blog posts Part of series: Covid-19, education and educational research
Five education myths that Covid-19 shatters
Education has been practised and conceptualised internationally in ways that demonstrate its increasing privatisation, enabled through a dependency on numerical data and an adherence to a social world that is constructed and distorted through these numbers. We argue that Covid-19 signifies, first, the catastrophic failure or irrelevance of the technologies of privatisation to addressing the pandemic’s exigencies and implications, and, second, the necessity of a public form of education to address the post-pandemic landscape. We do this through showing how five strong claims associated with contemporary education policy and practice have been revealed by Covid-19 to be myths, whose maintenance is a luxury made possible only in relatively stable times, and even then only through hard policy work made invisible through now demonstrably false claims that There Is No Alternative.
Myth 1: Teacher and leader efficacy can provide the solutions to children’s academic failure
The function of this myth is to reproduce the diverse fictions necessary to enable transactional accountability regimes in low-trust systems. The myth is operationalised through the dogma of corporatisation, in which schools are badged like businesses offering simple solutions to complex social problems.
The current situation reveals a starker reality in which the normalisation of home schooling magnifies the social inequalities underlying educational underachievement (which schools are ill-equipped to address). This is evidenced through the considerable differences in the ability and capacity of families to home-school children and the varying responsiveness of whole communities to the (often unrealistic) expectations placed upon them by schools. Covid-19 reveals how much home matters to learning.
Myth 2: School leaders matter more than teachers and support staff
This myth’s function is to construct leadership as a commodity possessed by few, evidenced through vision work. Leaders’ corporate language and dispositions superordinate them as much as their hierarchical position in the organisation. This corporate parity has been reflected in some eye-watering salaries. Covid-19 reveals a different reality, in which it is teachers who are keeping the show on the road, demonstrating bravery and resilience in the face of an increased likelihood of infection where schools are still open; demonstrating initiative in making new forms of online teaching work; and generating a sense of community through continued interactions with children. Covid-19 reinforces research findings showing that leadership only impacts student achievement when it is teacher-focussed: the value of administration in the post-Covid-19 landscape will lie in helping teachers.
Myth 3: Schools and those who work or learn in them must be continuously surveilled
This myth’s function has been to deprofessionalise teachers by empowering Ofsted as a means of control and of operationalising the market. Ofsted’s insensitive ‘business-as-usual’ announcement, issued at a time (March 2020) when teachers were preoccupied with preparing for lockdown, exposed a lack of solidarity with the teaching profession and a mismatch between the surveillance imperative and the realities of school life. Threatening schools with drop-in inspections during a national emergency has severely discredited Ofsted, as evidenced by a social-media outcry and by headteachers’ and unions’ responses. With formal examinations cancelled and the metrics of expected levels, tracking, targets and flight paths rendered meaningless, teachers’ professional judgements must again be valued and necessary post-Covid-19, returning power to school-based professionals.
Myth 4: Transferring power from the local authority (district) towards autonomous ‘leaders’ makes a positive difference to children’s learning
This myth signifies the depoliticisation of education policy, connoted by its withdrawal from many areas of state provision. Its function is to privatise public education through marketisation and through dismantling the middle tier of democratic accountability — disintermediation. Actually, principals have not enjoyed universal autonomy: decision-making is often transferred to less accountable trusts and CEOs, and privatised. Covid-19 requires national education systems to repoliticise and act as a system for the common good. Unilateral or Balkanised action threatens coherence and hence children’s safety. Post-Covid-19, the atomisation of education ‘systems’ purposively created by disintermediation and the diversification of school types must be reversed to support children’s learning.
Myth 5: Education ought best to be understood, structured and delivered around the interests of the individual
The ultimate privatisation in educational services is that of the body. Individuals can be recognised as distinctive, and so access a school place thanks to private networks, tuition, faith, wealth and beliefs about whom one’s child should be educated with and by. Some people’s children matter more than others, and parents fail their children if they don’t create advantage through exercising choice. This myth has functioned in the interests of elites, but it has failed because, ultimately, individual academic achievement is relational. Usually this failure is invisible for elites, as they invest and struggle for advantage in their gated communities, but the threat to life by Covid-19 has made this visible and so levelled everyone up to the same position of survival.
In a post-Covid-19 world, these myths are no longer tenable. We must challenge, for example, the notion of privatised bodies as sites of elite distinction for an elite education, just as Covid-19-inspired claims that some bodies (of the aged, of those with pre-virus health problems) can be sacrificed to protect the economy are prompting homologous critiques (see here and here). So, our task as researchers is to demonstrate how our repulsion at league tables measuring a right to life has to outflank such thinking in educational services. If we are all in this together, then we are all in this together in the common school.