IIt was a savage contempt. When Sir Kevan Collins, England’s head of school recovery, left Boris Johnson’s office last week, his offer for a three-year £ 15 billion education program was cut to £ 1.4 billion. The government’s diluted package comes to around £ 50 a year per pupil, compared to £ 1,600 in the United States and £ 2,500 in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, Johnson spends billions each year simply to build a faster train to Birmingham. For a man who prides himself on wasting public money, it is difficult to think of a more obscene sense of priorities.
The battle between Collins and the Treasury was reportedly fierce. Collins claimed that £ 15bn was essential to make up for the two years of lost education. He wanted schools to add an average of half an hour a day and 100 hours a year to sixth grade instruction, with more tutoring. At the Treasury, Rishi Sunak, struggling to regain control over Johnson’s reckless spending, was not convinced it was money well spent. The progressive privatization by the government of school trusts would mean that huge sums would go to agencies outside of Whitehall’s control, including training centers and tutoring colleges. In Sunak’s mind, there must be a limit, and that limit had been reached.
Sunak’s argument might have some virtue if the victim of his renewed discipline weren’t struggling schools, and if he hadn’t spent the past year throwing public money at unlicensed businesses, conservative donors and dodgy procurement firms. Collins’ offer was consistent with state extravagance in private business, public transportation, housing subsidies, and “leveling off.” In addition, Johnson had promised that catching up in school was “my highest priority … the future of our nation depends on us paying that generation.” When Johnson declares a priority, we should all turn to the lender.
Collins’ only flaw was his emphasis on allowing students to “catch up” with an existing regimen, rather than attending to the most desperate cases of hardship. The confinement has clearly affected children in very different ways. Many will not have suffered seriously from the denial of the classroom experience and will have been thoroughly taught at home and online. In fact, one of the most common complaints has not been a lack of education but a lack of socialization.
That, in turn, has exposed the plight of those for whom closed schools have been a disaster. Children’s service budgets have been shattered; The most dire statistic I know of is that over the last decade, urban youth clubs in England and Wales have lost £ 1 billion in funding, a real cut of 70%, as a result of austerity. These are costs that will affect young people and society much more savagely than a marginal drop in Britain’s performance in some world mathematical ranking.
When the lockdown began and schools began to close, I had a vision of children briefly freed from slavery. The classes did not meet. The exams were not set, passed or failed. The “worst” schools were not humiliated. Children roamed the streets and countryside, taking risks, earning pocket money, linking (or not) with their families and social media, fending for themselves. My fantasy was that 20 years later, the British noticed a curious fact. A cohort of confident, talented, and freethinking thirty-somethings quietly dominated all walks of life. They were the teen class of 2020-21. They had escaped the GCSE / A-level rat race and spent two years just maturing, learning the pains and joys of life for themselves.
A fantasy, I know, but the sad thing about Collins’ plan is that he did not take the opportunity to propose a revision, or even a radical experiment, in British education. The obsession with the traditional “academy” remains, that school is about rote learning, memory, and passing exams. Education for life, for employment, self-reliance, relationships, health, money, and citizenship was someone else’s job, whether they were parents, partners, priests, or probably the police. A turn in that direction would actually have been worth £ 15 billion, a national exercise in alternative education.
During the confinement, a massive voluntary effort was made to protect the health of each community and alleviate loneliness and old age. It was Britain at its best. But little that I know of went to help young people. There was outdoor cooking and outdoor concerts, but no outdoor classes or instruction. Schooling today is an introverted pursuit. It responds to an examination board and a minister, but not to a community. That is the missed blocking opportunity.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism