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Sensemaker: Education, education, education

Thursday 10 June 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • The US is to buy 500 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to donate to the global vaccination drive. The doses will arrive later this year and early next year. 
  • A Russian court banned political organisations linked to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, designating them as “extremist”.
  • An annular eclipse, when the Moon moves across the face of the Sun, blocked out much of the sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere this morning.

Education, education, education

The past year or so has, of course, been unprecedented – and left deep scars in lots of ways. But one of the things that we will be handling for years to come is the effects on schooling: in March last year, according to Unicef, about 150 countries fully closed their schools. A year later, there were still 27 countries which had not returned at all to the physical classroom. 

In England, we were more bullish about getting children back into the classroom than most. But, even here, the catch-up problem is huge. This autumn, for example, government research found a learning loss of two months in reading and three in maths. The recent political fight about funding a catch-up plan – at a cost of £15 billion – shows the scale of the problem. 

Without that sort of money, we have tough questions about what our priorities should be. Are we trying to get the whole class back to where they once were, even if there are big gaps between pupils – or should teachers focus on the children who were most disrupted?

But there are other, longer-term questions here. And this is a moment when a lot of parents have an unprecedented insight into the education of their children. It is a good time, particularly when the whole system is so shattered and off-target, to think about whether the purpose of the education system is doing what we intend. Do we actually like what the system is doing?

According to TeacherTapp, a survey app for teachers, 84 per cent of English primary school teachers thought this was a moment to rethink what the system is aiming to achieve. Their polling found that 45 per cent of parents and 36 per cent of teachers wanted more concern about children’s health and wellbeing. But this is a tricky problem to solve: what does that even mean?

For example, 60 per cent of teachers and 52 per cent of parents also want more focus on disadvantaged children. But we have used accountability (translation: making schools work harder by getting their pupils to take lots of exams) to help poorer kids in particular. And the thing that a lot of people mean when they talk about wellbeing is stress, which is a by-product of the accountability system which is helping those poorer kids. 

People also dislike the high-stakes nature of our exam system: why must everything come down to how someone does in a single test on a single day? Well, because sharp-elbowed posh people have worked out how to game everything else. “Credentialism” – a focus on exam results – is, again, an attempt to level the playing field. Relieving stress might have serious other consequences – and we have trade-offs to think about.

The sense of an education arms race goes beyond school: the rise in higher education participation around the world makes the value of credentials extremely important. The sight of students confined to their halls of residence has made the whole system look both rather old fashioned and cruelly industrialised. Even if you think we need higher levels of education, can we really not find something to dislodge the prestige of the old three-year or four-year degree?

This has, though, also been a moment when teachers have been forced to learn new techniques which might stick: 30,000 teachers are still logging in to the Oak National Academy, a remote-teaching resource. It might become the norm to ask children to watch tapes explaining ideas before a lesson, as part of a strategy to maximise the best use of a teacher’s time. It is worth working out what is worth retaining from this terrible year in schooling.

These are the challenges we are going to be looking through at our Education Summit next week. Join us next Thursday to hear more, when we will be joined by guests and experts to pull at some of these threads.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Free movement of sausages
According to the Times (£), the UK has been issued a “demarche”, a formal reprimand, by the US – just ahead of the G7 meeting today in Cornwall. The issue is the continued stand-off between the EU and UK about the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit deal, which effectively introduced a border for some products (notably: sausages) between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The memo said that the US “strongly urged” Britain to come to a “negotiated settlement”, even if that meant “unpopular compromises”. The really big news in the demarche, though, is a concession: the US would be willing to accept that, if the UK dealt with this issue by aligning with EU rules on agriculture, Washington would not be able to get all it wants in a future UK-US trade deal.


New things technology, science, engineering

Privacy confidential
The latest big thing in tech and publishing has been the newsletter boom: it has never been easier for an idiot to write a newsletter, keep a mailing list and charge people for receiving the letters. It’s all very 1995. But there are challenges to it: one is coming from Apple, which is introducing privacy features to make it harder for newsletters, among other things, to track if you have read emails. I suspect that removing information on whether anyone has read your messages will only hurt people making money from sending advertising via email – not subscriber-driven emails. There might be some issues with Substack in Europe, though: it’s absolutely not compliant with data protection laws (or, at least, not automatically).


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Jessica Morris
In December 2019, Jessica Morris wrote beautifully for Tortoise about her fight against the aggressive brain cancer glioblastoma – and the UK launch of OurBrainBank, the patient-led movement to advance treatment of one of the worst cancers. Jessica died in New York on 8 June, with her family around her, more than five years after her brain tumour was first discovered. Her piece Patient Power described the way OurBrainBank, the non-profit organisation she set up, helped patients track their daily symptoms through a free app, sharing the data with medical researchers. 

“This is what we call patient power,” she wrote in 2019. “Channelling our fears into productive endeavours. If today I feel good, am able to spend my time productively, contribute to generating interest and momentum in turning this disease around, then perhaps today I am cured. Who knows about tomorrow? But, then again, that’s the same for all of us. Today, life is good.” Make a donation to OurBrainBank.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

A feature, and a bug
A rather remarkable story: infecting mosquitoes with a bacteria that thrives inside them can stop the mosquitos being able to pass on Dengue fever. In effect, the helpful bacteria – Wolbachia, if you want to send them a thank-you note – compete for resources inside the mosquito. And the treatment cuts incidence of the disease by 77 per cent. For a disease that causes symptoms in 100 million people a year, kills thousands, causes agony and has been spreading around the world, this is a big deal.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Tax grabbing
The G7’s other agenda item is the new corporate tax plan – a plan to, in effect, make it easier for countries to tax companies based on their real business footprint, not their self-declared business structures which – surprise! – always seem to end up with the profitable chunks based in low-tax jurisdictions. Ireland is very concerned about this, as the notional home of a lot of tech companies. For all the focus on Dublin’s Silicon Valley’s companies, the FT reports (£) that Britain and France are worried about banks: both are big exporters of financial services.

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can.

Chris Cook
@xtophercook

Photographs by Getty Images


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