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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #019 – Unterhalter

By CEID Blogger, on 19 May 2020

Whose tomorrow? Six ideas for education in a different world

By Elaine Unterhalter

Whose tomorrow is tomorrow?

And whose world is the world?

Bertolt Brecht, Solidarity Song (1929)

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is political advice attributed to former Barack Obama aide, Rahm Emanuel, riffing off the economist Paul Romer. Many commentators  on coronavirus remark the epidemic combines a health crisis, an economic crisis and an environmental crisis, but do not comment on the associated education crisis. Some elements of the education  effects of the pandemic give glimpses of facets of the crisis, associated with the large numbers of children out of school,  the  consequences of them not getting food, the breaks in social networks, and disparities in access to the technologies providing most learning and teaching at the moment. These effects deepen inequalities.

But, has there ever been a ‘good’ crisis in education? And if so, what use could we make of the COVID-19 crisis?

Education crisis may be a term that raises questions, rather than galvanizing action. In the international education community, over the last two decades the term “crisis” has been used often to promote particular ideas about what education should be. It  has been invoked during PISA shocks, when PISA scores failed to match national ideas on the quality of education in Germany, France or the UK.  A ‘learning crisis’ has been invoked by many international organisations and researchers to delineate the large numbers of  children in developing countries, who spend years in school but do not achieve adequate learning outcomes. Desired learning outcomes, in these accounts, are often linked with attainments in reading or maths assessments or final examinations.

Ideas about the learning crisis have led, in many countries, to a crisis of legitimacy for state education systems. Many parents, concerned  about school quality,  have turned away from state schools, believing private schooling delivers better quality learning. This has created many opportunities for profit-seeking private providers to fill attendant gaps.  The  coronavirus pandemic has opened many doors for technology companies, as was seen in New York state last week. Large tech companies are taking up prominent positions by the side of governments to promote solutions from which they will benefit. It seems the education crisis associated with coronavirus may not be going to waste for some.

The combination of  alarm and lack of specific delineation of the problem associated with the general depiction of crises may be unhelpful, but there are other ways of analyzing our current state.  The economic and political crisis associated with coronavirus has prompted a revisioning  by some governments in relation to the debt they must incur in order to protect the health of their populations, and this is reformulating political and economic relationships.  A re-formulation of education relationships could follow. The crisis has underlined the importance of upholding human rights, particularly for migrants under conditions of lockdown. It has highlighted women’s rights in the face of the well documented growth in domestic violence. A vision of an alternative approach to work, signed by thousands of academics, stresses the need for democratization, decommodification and environmental remedy. The environmental crisis has elicited careful documentation on the falls in air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental campaigners are demanding thatbailout packages for airlines and industrial manufacturers include provisions for future emissions reductions. They have noted some of the downsides that have come from build-ups of waste that has not been recycled, an increase in illegal deforestation, leading to renewed emphasis on the importance of environmental protection actions.  These combinations of general goals and specific actions could be particularly useful for the education community

To date it appears little revisioning has been done in education outside the profit opportunities for digital learning, and organisational concerns with the return to school.  UNESCO has focussed on supporting education ministries with school closures,  alternative learning resources, and planning for school re-opening. Many researchers, publishing blogs, visualizations or newspaper articles, are chronicling how education inequality is a feature of the lockdown. But where are the big ideas in the face of this education crisis, more profound than any seen, that reveals the deep harms of inequalities? This crisis is not simply an ideological formulation, in the terms that the ‘learning crisis’ has been presented. Without remediation this crisis will be a slow burn, with effects evident over decades.

Here are six ideas to start some discussion about visioning new worlds for education:

  1. Blame does not overcome problems. In education it is often used to scapegoat the poorest for failing to keep children in school, teachers for failing to get good exam results, girls for failing to use contraception, or outsiders for transmitting the virus. Blame isn’t useful in a crisis (or any time) and is not a substitute for substantive ideas about education reform and the research that can support their implementation.
  2. Top down solutions that fail to draw on the knowledge and support of local communities, within and outside schools, generally don’t deliver. Well-administered education systems are necessary, but not sufficient when education administrators, managers and evaluators do not know enough about education conditions on the ground. Local democracies, which are better able to understand these conditions, and appreciative of values around equality and inclusion, are a necessary part of education decision-making and ideas about leadership.
  3. Metrics that do not have local contextual information provide skewed understanding. We need to build on all the work that has been done pointing out how we can get beyond crude school league tables, better understand baselines, and the complexity of inequalities, and work with multiple data sources, alert to what they can and cannot tell us, and oriented to what inclusion and equality in education really look like under specific local conditions.
  4. Education systems are not just administrative organograms. They are made up of people who work together, and their histories, affiliations and aspirations are a huge resource for thinking about what education rights and equalities should mean.
  5. Education is a public and a private good and the relationship between these is complex.Appreciating this dynamic is not a rationale for promoting the private, exclusionary and for-profit. We cannot undermine the public good. We need to think about how we define public good, de-commodify education and generate the tax revenues to support education provision over decades.
  6. Solidarity is an under-rated global public good. What solidarity means in relation to deepening education provision in the time of the coronavirus means drawing up some detailed to-do lists. Such a list would reposition care as an important process associated  with education. We need to think about schools as spaces of care as much as about building human capital or citizenship or insights with regard to sustainability.

These six ideas stem from my rage at the inequalities the epidemic has exposed. Schooling, as much as income and capital, is enmeshed in creating and justifying these inequalities. Care and inequality do not fit together. Revaluing our care for each other, and  how education is a feature of building creative relationships, which reposition care, seems crucial. Such an approach would place  needs as centrally as  rights and capabilities in our education discussions, allowing us not to  waste this moment and to create  for tomorrow .

Elaine Unterhalter is a professor of education and international development at the UCL Institute of Education.


Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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