Jimmy lives in Patcham. Even as his 6th form college has re-opened to allow kids to attend in person for two-thirds of the timetable, the rest of his classes remain online. It is Monday and he is up at 8.28 for his 8.30 History A-level class, grabbing a glass of orange juice and crashing down in front of his laptop and the ubiquitous Microsoft Teams. This class is live, which means the teacher is lecturing in real time, and, also for this one, her camera is on and both she and her Powerpoint presentation can be seen together. However, because college policy is ambivalent around the host of sensitivities that reciprocated cameras would throw up, Jimmy’s camera is firmly off and she can’t see him, and he doesn’t need to wear any trousers.
‘How did it go?’ I ask at 10.15, as he grabs some biscuits and slumps next to me on the couch, scrolling through whatever it is he urgently needs to scroll through. ‘What was that about?’ ‘Lenin’s decree on land,’ he mumbles and I’m impressed.
Monday is a full day. At 12, he walks into college for the face-to-face Maths class he is now able to attend. The social interaction, muffled and masked as it is, undoubtedly helps his mood and he comes back around 4, quite pleased with the day.
Tuesday, he has another online class, this time in Politics. Half-way through this, the kids have a ‘breakout’ session where they are organised into smaller units to talk among themselves without the teacher. This seems to be quite animated and the small group chats away. Later on, the kids answer some questions in a workbook. This is challenging, but Jimmy says the hardest bit with online work is the lack of real interaction either with the teacher or with other students. He has little sense of how he is doing. Is he going along at the same rate as the others? Or better? Or worse? He doesn’t really know. Until they went back on site, at least, there was next to no camaraderie with the other kids in the class. Indeed, he barely knew who his classmates were.
‘What was that one about then?’ I ask, after the Politics class winds down, ever the careful and patient interviewer and scribe. ‘The British constitution,’ he says. ‘So?’ I fire back, ‘What’s the conclusion?’ He shrugs. ‘Same as ever, the world is still run by c –’
‘Oi’, I manage to say, anticipating the tiresome teenager’s predictable response, ‘watch your language’. Isn’t this just what happens when the steady pastoral hand of the form teacher is removed? Then again, I know these are trying times and we’re all struggling in our own ways to negotiate the new normal.
Also by James Joughin:
- Walking in the Downs – a lockdown odyssey
- Cuts in aid: Johnson and Raab open up another front in the culture war
But how typical is Jimmy’s experience? Even in prosperous, famously liberal Brighton and Hove, there is a huge range of experiences, both of schools, and educational outcomes. The relevant government website lists nearly 40 schools in Brighton and Hove alone, with a very wide range of traditions and results: more than 25 state schools, with accompanying ‘metrics’ as everything seems to be called in the new normal, and more than 10 ‘independent’ schools for which ‘no data is returned’.
According to the Brighton Argus, the average Attainment 8 score (i.e. the average score across eight subjects taken at GCSE) across all state-funded schools in Brighton and Hove in 2018 was 47.9, compared to the national average of 46.4. That is of course good, and Brighton’s best-performing state school was well above that, at 55.4.
But the worst performing schools were way down, with at least two scoring below 40 on the average Attainment 8 score. The East Brighton campaign group Class Divide has explored some of the council’s own data to drill down into the grim quagmire that this metric represents. In 2019, young people from Whitehawk, Manor Farm and Bristol Estate managed an Attainment 8 score of only 32.2, with only 37% of students getting basic grades at GCSE English and Maths compared to the citywide average of 69%. In addition, children and young people from Whitehawk, Manor Farm and Bristol Estate are twice as likely as their counterparts across Brighton and Hove to be excluded from school at least once. These are significant differentials, largely a function of where you live and where you are in the class hierarchy, and they will significantly impact on what happens in the rest of your life.
And these are only two of the educational models operating. There is another one: the independent schools. Or the public schools. Or the private schools, or whatever it is they currently call themselves. It’s complicated but, if you can cough up the 40 grand a year for the gig, you will get a whole other level of service. Brighton College, one of the best performing of all schools in the world, can, for example, lay on an environment able to generate ‘stratospheric’ results. Never mind Attainment 8, they fly by that to return 97.2 per cent A*-B grades at A-level and 94.5 per cent marked grades 9-7 at GCSE. The school has a ‘revolutionary School of Science and Sport, 18 university standard laboratories, a 25-metre swimming pool, an indoor and rooftop running track (with sea views), a double-height sports hall, greenhouse, cinema, breakout spaces, fitness suite and aerobics studio’.
A mile to the east, and for much the same budget, Roedean has a floodlit all-weather pitch, top-notch library, integrated performing arts facilities etc etc. Reassuringly, we are told that Roedean students are ‘very conscious of their privilege’, and the school has a strong relationship with a local homeless charity which ‘involves organising fundraising events and preparing care packs that are distributed among those in need around Brighton’.
So this is not just a tale of two cities, this is a tale of three cities: two levels of state provision and then the ‘stratospheric’ private sector. Predictable and depressing as we all know the story is, the sheer naked savagery of the situation still has the capacity to punch you in the gut. Below the shiny liberal surface of the second most progressive city in the UK there lurks a veritable sharkpit which you fall into at your peril.
And how would you expect Covid to have affected this?
Even the Tory press recognise that Covid has pushed provision off a cliff in the state sector, notwithstanding the sterling and heroic efforts of the teachers. There is curiously little in the papers, however, about how children attending private schools have actually done quite well during lockdown. I suspect they are keeping their heads down. The Spectator quotes research by University College London, following the closure of schools during the first lockdown. This found that more than 70 per cent of state-school pupils had either no online lessons, or only one a day, while many private schools were providing four or more online lessons in a day. One private school teacher tells me the private schools anticipated lockdown and had teachers in training in the weeks before it started, with their laptops and software all prepared and ready to go.
My teacher friend tells me that, from day one, private schools in Brighton were livestreaming with an interactive whiteboard, just like normal lessons. They were teaching to class sizes of 12-15 and also running catch-up clinics and even non-academic societies like debating and chess and robotics. Cameras were almost always on and it was obvious that this helped interactivity and focus. Teachers could see the kids and how they were working and which ones were struggling. Up to Christmas the private schools were doing some sport, with their own pitches and facilities. They were also regularly testing both staff and kids. Absenteeism was at a minimum.
By comparison, the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 42 per cent of state-school children were not completing their work, and that ‘pupils in the most disadvantaged schools were the least likely to be engaged with remote learning’. In cramped homes, with very few resources, overseen by stressed, busy parents, kids struggle to engage. Not for them the top-notch library and piped-in Chopin preludes. In fact, when schools were closed, the Sutton Trust found only a third of working-class children were spending four hours or more on schoolwork each day. And even when lessons were being provided, they were often pre-recorded, with YouTube videos and generic online worksheets. When lessons were live, interaction was limited because of the need to keep cameras off because of insufficient bandwidth, or because some kids only have phones. Sometimes voices were also muted to be sensitive to kids who were shy to speak up. There was very little pastoral input and no sport.
But does anyone in authority give a proverbial? Is this not the question we all have to wrestle with every day? Who in the cabinet knows much about state schools? It’s not apparent but we could ask how many ministers use the state sector for their own children? Of course, most of them ain’t saying. We do know that Johnson has four children with Marina Wheeler. Lettice was at Bedales, costing £33,000 a year. Milo went to £27,000 Westminster School, and Cassia Peaches to £18,000 a year Highgate School. Michael Gove and Gavin Williamson (we’ll come back to him) do have children in the state system but the only other grandee for whom information is easily available is Jacob Rees-Mogg (the one who said that the fish currently rotting on the quays because of Brexit delays are “better and happier because they are British”): he has six kids, five of whom attend £18,000-a-year Hill House in Knightsbridge.
Another proxy in this discussion might be MPs’ own educational history. Further analysis by the Sutton Trust shows members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet are nine times more likely to have gone to an independent school than the general population: 65% were educated at fee-paying schools (while 27% went to a comprehensive and 8% attended a grammar school). The Independent reports that even members of the Blue Collar Conservatism caucus, whose short CVs on the group’s website big up their working-class credentials, are dominated by politicians who went to private school. Around a third of the 158 MP members went to fee-paying schools, including Eton, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Harrow, Westminster School and Dulwich College.
So perhaps it is not surprising that the cabinet does not seem too interested in the educational outcomes for state-school pupils. But if the private sector could do classes in AI and robotics, if they could do more or less continuous livestreaming, as well as pastoral clinics and team sports, this surely should be taken as the bar for everyone else. If government really intends to level up, these ‘stratospheric’ standards are what they should be aiming at. So, with the time they have had since these issues were first in the news, when last year’s exams were cancelled in March, and when who knows what next winter will bring, why have they not sourced laptops for remote learning, equipped venues to safely teach children who cannot stay at home, and provided support to teachers in their daunting and stressful tasks? During the winter, where were the marquees and converted empty buildings to which children could be decanted, the armies of appropriately vetted volunteers to staff the testing centres, the laptops and internet connection for every child who has to work from home, the one-to-one tuition to help the struggling?
One thing we can say is, don’t try asking Gavin Williamson. He is the minister, the man in charge, but also the Tory who makes even Tory voters run screaming for the radio off-switch, the one who was disgraced for giving away state secrets under the May government, then brought back by Johnson as a shield to make his own clowning look acceptable by comparison. Let’s face it, if government cared about any of this, if government really intended to act, would they have put him in charge? It helps to recall a peek behind the curtain granted by the horse’s mouth itself, an exasperated Dominic Cummings back in 2017: “People think, and by the way I think most people are right: ‘The Tory party is run by people who basically don’t care about people like me.’ … I am sad to say the public is basically correct. Tory MPs largely do not care about these poorer people.”
What was it Jimmy said at the beginning of this piece? Something he got from his Politics class? I tried twice to get him to wash his mouth out but, really, what other conclusion can you draw?
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