Nigella Vigoroso-Heck asks: if Eton can do it why can’t my local comp?

It has been 14 weeks since we closed the school gates. In that time I have:

  • conducted over 120 hours of live “remote teaching”;
  • created over 50 revision videos for my exam year groups;
  • written over 40 assignments for my students;
  • marked and fed-back over 250 individual pieces of work from my students;
  • ranked my A-level cohort of students (with evidence attached) so that they can receive a grade this summer; and
  • attended over 30 hours-worth of school meetings (departmental, heads of department, line management and so on).

It’s been a helluva slog and I am really very tired.

But I am also very angry.

I’m not angry at being tired. Being tired is all part and parcel of being a teacher. The numbers above reflect a relatively normal pattern of work for a Head of Department over such a period of time.

No, I am angry about the way in which I think a lot of the state educational system, and secondary schooling in particular, has simply melted away in the face of this difficult (but not insurmountable) challenge. I’m not entirely sure why this has happened but it is certainly making me angry.

Let’s consider the private sector for a moment. Private schools today find themselves in an enormously difficult financial position.

Firstly, many parents are simply refusing to pay. Some can’t pay. Others won’t pay.

“A lot of the state educational system, and secondary schooling in particular, has simply melted away.”

Secondly, many private schools are heavily exposed to foreign markets and, specifically, China. Chinese students make up an enormous percentage of the UK boarding community. They all left in February and there is no guarantee that any of them are coming back in September. (Higher Education is suffering the same way).

“Private schools today find themselves in an enormously difficult financial position. Many parents are simply refusing to pay.”

Private schools have been quick to respond. Most of them reduced their fees (by anything from 10% to 50%) and announced their remote teaching plans before the end of the Easter holidays. The exam year-groups (years 13 and 11) were immediately offered pre-university or A-level-transition courses. Teachers were asked to run elective modules and live teaching was a fundamental requirement. Mock exams and regular homework assignments have continued as normal.

By contrast, my own (albeit limited) sense is that the state sector has been much slower to respond. For example, many of the state secondary schools in my local area are offering no live teaching whatsoever and lots of students have had nothing marked since the Easter holidays. A recent research paper from the UCL Institute of Education seems to support my anecdotal evidence. Professor Green reports that:

  • 71% of state school children received no, or less than one daily online lessons;
  • just 18% of state schools children are spending more than four hours a day on schoolwork; and
  • only 6% of state schools are providing any sort of live teaching.

The profit motive – or, in this case, the survival motive – has galvanised private schools’ collective allocation of resources much quicker. Furthermore, it has led to the delivery of a much better product. We all know that remote teaching is shit but face-to-face live remote teaching is much less shit than the strategy of “dumping and forgetting” a series of PDFs onto a virtual learning platform that nobody reads. That really is not teaching in any sense.

The private sector had to respond to severe market pressure. That has led to a much greater social surplus within those markets.

That’s all very well for the private schools that have lots of resources, you might argue. Well, that’s where the government ought to step in and level the playing field then, surely? But the government’s role in education provision since the start of lockdown has been a mess. One unclear set of guidelines has followed another.

“We all know that remote teaching is shit but face-to-face live remote teaching is much less shit.”

One measure that could have helped the public sector would have been provision of laptops. Just like many big businesses did for their employees, couldn’t the government have provided every teacher with a laptop? This would have at least enabled them with the necessary equipment to provide better teaching.

In the same vein, couldn’t the government have bought all secondary school children a device for remote learning? Clearly the biggest barrier to online learning (especially for disadvantaged students) is not having a device to access the learning on. Yes, it would have been expensive. But it would have been a fraction of the cost of the furlough scheme. And a lot of private schools still managed to do it on their greatly-reduced budgets.

“The biggest barrier to online learning is not having a device to access the learning on.”

To me, it almost feels that the Government surrendered all of its obligations to the education sector in the face of Covid-19.

Meanwhile it’s arguably the job of pressure groups like the trade unions to guide government policy. The truth, however, is that over the past 14 weeks, the actions of the various teaching unions have been really quite appalling. From day one of lockdown I was sent emails from my union about the things that my school could ask me to do and the things it couldn’t. I guess some might find that very reassuring, but the truth is it’s always been communicated in such a way that conveys an intent on stopping me from going back to school. This is a list of some of the advice I have been sent by my union over the past 14 weeks:

  • don’t use Zoom;
  • don’t use Google Meet;.
  • if you feel uncomfortable with video conferencing, then you don’t have to do it;
  • you shouldn’t be expected to mark anything; and
  • you are not required to provide feedback to pupils.

The trade unions are letting the educational sector down. Every single education professional should be motivated by the same thing: doing the best by your students. Well, in my opinion, the best thing for all our students is that we should bloody teach them. Stop putting obstacles in the way and giving people excuses not to do any work.

“There is nothing unreasonable about asking a teacher to provide four hours-worth of work a day for students. There is nothing unreasonable about asking a teacher to mark work. The free market wouldn’t stand for it.”

No doubt the unions would say that they are protecting people from unreasonable demands from employers. But there is nothing unreasonable about asking a teacher to teach “live”. There is nothing unreasonable about asking a teacher to provide four hours-worth of work a day for students. There is nothing unreasonable about asking a teacher to mark work. The free market wouldn’t stand for it.

Let’s not forget the students of 2019/20 have missed an enormous amount of teaching. We need to offer them something more robust. Quickly.

Unfortunately, different people will draw different conclusions from this great educational debacle and this will lead to mixed (and less effective) responses. The government will blame the unions. The unions will blame the government. Free-marketeers will blame the unions and the government, and probably state school teachers themselves.

Meanwhile, the private sector goes on and the disparity gets wider.

It’s worth noting that the likes of Eton and Harrow have already doubled down on their provision of online teaching services. They have seen the future. Remote teaching has been proven and the genie won’t go back into the bottle. Eton has established its online EtonX programme and Harrow has now partnered with Pearson to deliver Harrow School online. This trend will continue. The future provision of education is here. And it is being built by private schools.

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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