“History is a race between education and catastrophe” – H.G.Wells

THE VERY BEST OF H.G. WELLS SHORT STORIES eBook: H.G. WELLS: Amazon.co.uk:  Kindle Store

One of England’s greatest and prolific writers, H.G. Wells wrote a remarkable book entitled ‘The Outline of History’, encompassing 2 volumes and covering the progress of Humanity from the origin of Earth to the First World War. Whilst its contents and ideas have been superseded, his explanation for the Great War was that… catastrophe has won. Wells enjoyed huge celebrity status as a writer, not just for his History writings but also for his science fiction, such as the Invisible Man and the War of the Worlds. Like all editors he enjoy ‘tweaking’ his ‘Outlines’ as better or different evidence came to the fore disproving a particular event, and after his death in 1946 his son continued its improvement until 1970, by which time the Second World War had been added.

I wonder what HG would have made of the 21st Century? It started of course with such optimism, high hopes for both the end of poverty and the rise of reason across the globe. Clearly 11 September 2001 put an end to those hopes, though the ensuing Iraq, Afghanistan and Syrian conflicts, coupled with the civil wars within Islamic states and the subsequent Arab spring have left many nations more than a little perplexed on how education per se could have prevented such catastrophes. The Financial marketplaces don’t hold to the known laws of the Universe either, and the Global Financial crisis that unfolded in 2007 have continued to echo down through the subsequent decade to follow.

And then Coronavirus was awoken in the form of Covid-19, and all the other sections of life as we know it beyond financial also ceased to operate as we thought they could. BMJ Journals is a collection of more than 70 medical and allied science titles. They are published by BMJ, the global healthcare knowledge provider and pioneer in the development of open access. I came across their analysis of what Covid-19 has awakened in the world, and it makes for pretty sober reading. I quote from their summary:

Commentary: COVID-19: the rude awakening for the political elite in low- and middle-income countries 

  • Decades of bad political choices by the elite class has resulted in weakened health systems in many low- and middle-income countries
  • The resulting lack of high-quality care and poor health outcomes are typically only borne by those of lower socio-economic standing – with the elites and their families being able to seek care in high-income countries.
  • COVID-19 may change all that—a highly transmissible virus and restrictive measures that prevent elites from flying abroad has forced them to depend on an ill-equipped health system at home.
  • COVID-19 presents a stark illustration that we are all interconnected; social class, personal status or borders do not help to evade health vulnerability.
  • Enlightened self-interest of political elites may finally provide sufficient motivation to invest in an effective and integrated health system.

They conclude: Political choices determine the conditions under which people can be healthy, including how COVID-19 spreads and its impact on populations. Decades of political corruption1 and the permeation of neoliberal political ideology have left health systems, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), chronically underfunded, insufficiently regulated, inadequately staffed and unable to deliver high-quality care. The resulting consequences are poor health outcomes, financial waste, increasing inequality, disproportionate share of global disease burden and immeasurable human suffering—especially for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Of course UK is not such a country, being one of the highest income earning countries on the planet. But there are certainly echoes in the evidence emerging in the UK, being surfaced in parliament as I write that poor planning, chronic underfunding, financial waste and increasing inequality are emerging as common themes too, and dare we say, as a consequence of neoliberal political ideology.

One of the biggest dangers UK Education always faces is that it faces top-down wholesale slaughter from the Secretary of State responsible, because of course, like all such post holders, they’ve been to school and participated, and so think they know better! Of all of the ministers who have managed to upset us, Michael Gove carries the crown, referring famously to us in the Educational Establishment (whatever that is) as ‘the Blob’. This is the politician who forced performance-related pay on the state sector, changed all our local GCSE and A level syllabi and assessment criteria at once, and continued to push local authority schools into academisation, even if the evidence was to the contrary. Subsequent Secretaries of State have enjoyed equally inglorious and even shorter careers, Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening and Damien Hinds (covering a span of 5 years between them before the current incumbent, Gavin WIlliamson took up the mantle in 2019).

How does the Covid-19 pandemic bring Education into the same analysis as people’s public health, I hear you ask? Health, Welfare, Social Care and Education are all elements that inform a society’s success, and as there is no hiding place from the scrutiny of the consumers of these services in the UK, it’s pretty obvious that under the emergency, those in Health to Education have performed as well as they can, given the circumstances, but in its aftermath, there are many outstanding questions to resolve for the future, without which there clearly will be catastrophic outcomes. Is the hospital waiting list for operations, currently at 4.66 million – the biggest since counting began on 2007, going to be transformed back to the quality outcomes we were seeing before the austerity cut-back on services? Equally for those children in reduced circumstances, it is estimated the interruption to education they have experienced is almost a year, and could have a huge financial impact subsequently in adult life.

Here’s the Institute of Fiscal Studies writing about the matter last month, under the headline ‘The crisis in lost learning calls for a massive national policy response‘: By the time the pandemic is over, most children across the UK will have missed over half a year of normal, in person schooling. That’s likely to be more than 5% of their entire time in school. Absent a substantial policy response, the long-run effects of this learning loss are likely to be slow-moving and substantial. We will all be less productive, poorer, have less money to spend on public services, and we may be less happy and healthy as a result. We will probably also be more unequal, with all the social ills that come with it.

Whether we are talking about History or perhaps Current Affairs (to become History after 20 years), the evidence from those schools, state and independent, whose students have not suffered from learning loss is that they have established a clear, coherent learning approach, equally applicable in-person or on-line, and as a consequence kept the well established relations between teacher and learner alive come what may. What then is the difference in financial investment between success and failure? Can we deduce what institutions need to have done in order to avoid the circumstances that the IFS report: “Pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds often lack the required digital equipment and study space to participate in effective remote learning. Younger pupils have found it more difficult to engage in remote learning. Schools, teachers and charities – not to mention parents – have gone to huge efforts to do what they can, but there is no substitute for time with a qualified teacher.

My school’s experiences speak of the need to have clear, coherent plans allied to professional development, values that won’t let people down and a relentless and ruthless desire to ensure we meet the needs in front of us. In the partnership activities we have with local state schools who welcome our support, we see the same clear eyed determination to problem solve. What you cannot achieve is our success by top-down leadership. As Richard Elmore, Emeritus Professor of Education at Harvard reporter in his seminal paper “Getting to scale, it seemed a good idea at the time”, you have to understand that every school, community town and city have their own unique ecologies, and the identified solution that will always work better and more readily is to take your current local teams, born and bred on the adversities and challenges where they are, and permit them to expand to pick up the slack. Imagine we had actually permitted all the local Public Health England teams to expand their activities of track and trace – that would have cost a fraction of the £37 billion that has been wasted over the last year. Imagine the private hospitals being permitted to pick up the slack of operations and procedures from the NHS, rather then their premises being requisitioned and then closed down as has actually happened. Imagine independent schools being given the opportunity to provide the additional support of teaching and nurture needed in our local areas.

As today’s investigative reporters are sleuthing out, one of the key issues about this government is its inability to tell the truth. Most of those who lead us, in parliament or government spads, follow the dictum – “How can you tell whether a politician is lying? – see if s/he moves their lips”! Here’s the Daily Mirror on how ‘new money for catch-up’ is actually old money rebadged. Because our mature democracy learns from the scandals that arise under our watch, we give parliament and independent watch-dogs the freedom to blow the whistle to safeguard the nation. Sadly we can’t always stop the politicians in resolving their egotistical need to ‘solve problems’, as David Cameron’s miserable failure to sort out the Conservative party by offering the Brexit vote to the nation prove. And there in lies the rub; as a country that continues to need to learn from its ‘lived’ history, we need to everything we can to keep our local economy and public services accountable locally. What Professor Elmore concludes in his paper on education reform is one I feel can be expanded to the whole breadth of Education, Health and Welfare. “I worry that we will not have learned how limited policy is a mechanism for transforming society. I worry about the excessive attention given to, and preoccupation with, fidelity to practices some of which, at best, find their roots in an obsolete industrial, colonialist society. “

In the future, History will declare that the winners emerging from this Covid-19 pandemic are those who took the opportunity to be flexible, adaptable and collaborative. The magical way our geneticists have collaborated across the globe to sequence the virus and grow the vaccine are almost matched by the agility of the health, care and education teams to make the best for our clients, wherever they are. As one who chooses to represent Education over Catastrophe, I continue that relentless drive to keep catastrophe at bay – and judging by the swathes of children now back in school and enjoying that regained opportunity to murmurate with their friends, I can smile and draw breath – for the moment at least, History is on our side!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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