Silver linings

Nigella Vigoroso-Heck looks forward to perfection

“So.  Here we are.  The end of term.

I have been truly humbled by the amount of work that you have put in over the last two years.  You have all given a huge amount of effort and I know that I have worked you very hard.  But you have all risen to that challenge fantastically and your progress has been amazing.  Even if you still don’t consider yourself to be an economist, you now have a much better understanding of the economy than 99% of people on the planet. And you know the truth about how people make decisions, how resources get allocated and how policy gets created. 

No doubt you are much more cynical about the world than you were two years ago when you started learning economics. This is because the conclusions we have reached together are often so bloody miserable. Economics is known as the dismal science for a reason. But I sincerely hope that, going forward, you can harness this cynicism in a positive way. For example, always make sure you call people out for making stupid economic decisions when you see it happening”.

I wrote this letter (above) to my Sixth Form leavers on 27 June 2020.

I wrote it at the end of the summer term when school had already been closed for more than three months. Deep-down, I felt like I needed to apologise to my students. For those months, I had always showed up (on screen) and performed some sort of teaching juggling act for their lessons, but it was all loaded with cynicism and negativity. Negativity about Ofqual. Negativity about the education secretary. Negativity about the pandemic.

And I realised that perhaps I had been that way for a bit longer than just a few months. 

In February, I was called a doom merchant by my colleagues for outlining the devastating economic impact of Covid-19. Weeks later the PE department staff were furloughed. 

In May, my closest friend called me a cynic for suggesting that Ofqual’s algorithm was an “epic clusterfuck” waiting to explode. It was and it did.

I even managed to feel grumpy about the A Level grade outcome in August because I didn’t predict all of my students A*s. If I had been a better game-theorist, I could have played that much better.

“My closest friend called me a cynic for suggesting that Ofqual’s algorithm was an “epic clusterfuck” waiting to explode.”

Negativity. Cynicism. Doom-mongering. Pessimism. I guess that is what can become of someone, like me, who lives the”‘dismal science” perpetually. 

Sadly, nothing about going back to school in September has changed any of that for me either. Teachers, up and down the country, are being ordered to stick to rigid one-way systems, quarantining homework, ensuring hand-washing protocols before every lesson, enforcing no-talking corridors, never moving from the front of the class. I get that it is essential but it isn’t much fun. There is also the very real risk of another exams farce next summer. A combination of local lockdowns, and trigger-happy school policies (closing the moment anyone coughs) means that heads, quite legitimately, will be asking Ofqual to suspend exams for a second consecutive year on the basis that certain kids will be disadvantaged.

All of that said, I am determined to end this column on a more upbeat note. For me, this will be the Year of Positivity. For example, I am committed to identifying the green shoots of economic recovery for my students. And I will show them the silver linings in current events like Brexit and deglobalisation and climate change and increasing global inequality and the pandemic. I will. I really will.

More than anything, quite genuinely, I am looking forward to seeing my students again and, in particular, I’m really quite optimistic about our new lower sixth cohort. 

Our student numbers for economics have shot up – as they always do in downturns. Economics actually behaves like an inferior good: the quantity demanded rises when income falls. This crop of 16 year-olds have lived through seismic economic changes over the past six months and they want to understand what’s going on. What does unemployment mean? And how do we fix it? Why are interest rates so low? 

They are already invested. They have buy-in. They want to learn more about the system.

But it gets better. This cohort has already lived through enormous state failures and very public criticism (from the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-slavery activism, shambolic government healthcare and educational policy, Extinction Rebellion and the highly visible work of Greta Thunberg even before lockdown). In my eyes, this is close to a perfect economic classroom. I will have a group of people who want to understand the system better but are, ultimately, suspicious of the system and want to engage with it critically. I can’t wait.

Nigella Vigoroso-Heck

Nigella heads up an economics department in a leading independent school. (S)he uses a pseudonym to avoid offence or embarrassment.

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