Like everyone else I tuned into Boris Johnson’s announcement last night. It was no surprise to anyone that we are back into lockdown. With the number of new cases running at over 50,000 a day and the number of deaths around 500 a day, something had to happen. Predictably the government left it to the last minute and sowed as much confusion as possible (e.g. see my post from yesterday on school closures and reflect on why they were fighting so hard to keep schools open on Monday, only to close them on Tuesday).
It is hard not to be incredibly angry about the way that the government has handled the crisis so far. On every occasion they have delayed making difficult decisions and relaxed regulations when they should have been kept tight. Because of this the virus has repeated run out of control. There has been no end of scientists (including their own scientific advisory group) telling them what needs to happen, but this has repeatedly been ignored. If you want to hear some righteous anger and helpful analysis about all of this (with a focus on education), watch Owen Jones interviewing Jo Grady (UCU) and Kevin Courtney (NEU) last night.
Because of all of the government’s missteps (from late lockdown, to Eat Out To Help Out, to the Christmas that wasn’t) we are where we are. Last night the Prime Minister finally did something decisive, even if it was much too late. But, it just gets us over the first hurdle. There is a desperate need for the government to start governing and to formulate some plans.
In this post I’m just going to outline what I think some of the most pressing concerns are from where I’m standing. I’m sure that I’ll be writing more about both the problems and potential solutions over the next few days and weeks, but for now lets get to grip with the problems.
- It’s the economy, stupid. First and foremost, we must recognise that going back into lockdown will worsen the already dire economic situation. Over the next six weeks to two months there will be no recovery and the situation is likely to deteriorate further. Some businesses will come out of this lockdown having been effectively closed for most of a year, at this point things start to become very structural. Capital reserves are depleted, firms will be behind with rent, and supplier and support networks will have eroded. There is going to be a desperate need for a financial stimulus to get the economy up and running.
- Labour market turmoil. Strongly linked to the problems in the economy there are huge problems brewing in the labour market. The failure to address sick pay is making it impossible for people to socially isolate, there are issues with the furlough, unemployment is rising and we can expect to see a lot of additional occupational and sectoral changes as the shape of the UK economy changes in response to the pressure of the pandemic and the lockdowns.
- Learning loss. The education system (particularly at the school level) has been very badly hit. My teenage kids have spent less than half of the last year actually in school. E-learning has been patchy and is even more difficult for primary age children. The situation in further and higher education has been better, but has still seen unprecedented disruption. The fact that we now have two academic years of critical disruption means that whole cohorts will have lost a huge amount of learning. This will be most obvious as GCSE students progress to A or T levels or 18 year olds progress to work or higher education. But, it will probably have longer-term and more pernicious effects on younger children who will be playing catch up for the rest of their education. The government needs a serious plan to address these issues. And that is saying nothing about the short term mess of what is going to happen in place of GCSE and A level exams this year, where once again there seems to be no plan.
- Collapsing career education and guidance. England’s career education and guidance system was fragile enough, but the pandemic is pushing it to the limit. So far things seem to be holding up, but without clearer signals about its importance and funding to back these signals up the small gains that have been made in recent years look likely to evaporate as the pressure builds. This is disastrous as in a period of crisis in both the education system and the labour market career guidance is more vital than ever.
This is how I see the main problems. What have I missed? And even more importantly what should we be doing about it?
Please add your thoughts in the comments below.