The writer is a former UK secretary of state for education and co-founder of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust
This pandemic could profoundly change education for the better. Throughout history, the sector has been conservative and resistant to change. For centuries it had the slate, then came a century of blackboard and chalk. Now students are just a finger-click away from the vast knowledge of Google — so much greater than that of any individual teacher.
Coronavirus has given schools Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom. The technology turns a laptop screen into a classroom, where students and teachers see each other and can question each other in truly collaborative online learning. Just after the UK’s lockdown began, the Department for Education launched a new online school, the Oak National Academy, where 2m lessons were accessed by learners across the country in its first week. Necessity really is the mother of invention.
During lockdown, many of the 48 university technical colleges that I helped establish and work with have provided teaching programmes from 9am to 5pm. Pupil attendance varies from 50 per cent to 95 per cent. Most students have access to the latest laptops. But some disadvantaged students do not — or only via a shared family laptop. The UK government now sees the advantage of online teaching because it is making laptops available to those students.
Our students like these virtual lessons. They eliminate long journeys to school — some of the students travel three hours a day. They allow an outstanding physics teacher — something of a rarity — to reach not only his or her own students, but those in schools that do not have a physics teacher at all. In future, virtual classes could allow students to attend school in person for, say, four days, with online lessons on the fifth.
The computer has become so important that I believe computing science should be taken at GCSE level by every student. When it comes to the jobs of the future, it will be a greater advantage to have a computer language than a foreign language. Three years ago, Dartford’s Leigh UTC opened for 11-year-olds, and taught all of them computing science. When those students, now aged 14, chose their technical specialism this year, 76 per cent opted for computing. They know where the jobs will be.
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GCSE exams have been replaced this year by stringent teacher assessments. Why can’t this continue? These exams burden each summer term with so much student, parent and teacher anxiety that little is learnt: only the student’s memory is tested. Now that education stretches from the age of four to 18, there is no purpose in an exam at 16. Back in 1950, the tests made sense because 93 per cent of students left for a job. Today, 93 per cent of students stay in education and training. What students need now is an assessment at 14 to decide if they want an academic or a more practical technical education.
Universities will also have to change. Students complain about the lack of time with tutors. Today, tutors using Zoom can meet 10 or 12 students for a discussion much more frequently.
Normal degree exams will also not happen this year. At Cambridge university, students reading human, social and political science will not sit in a large hall for three-hour exams on three separate occasions. Instead, they will be assessed for a third of their degree on their work over the previous three years, and for two-thirds on essays written at home in two, three-hour “open book” sessions. This is welcome because writing on a computer is quicker and more readable. Allowing students to refer to reference materials and books recognises that immediate recall is less important than the deeper understanding they have accumulated from wider reading.
When the pandemic ebbs Britain cannot go back to a low-skilled economy, because it will not be there. Unemployment will be high for both school-leavers and graduates. Schools should tell students that technical courses, possibly with paid apprenticeships, are a pathway to career success. Those going on to university should choose a course which British manufacturing and services need. Three-quarters of UTC students take science, technology, engineering and maths courses in university — twice the national average.
This is a small step along the road to a high-skill economy. Many more will need to make that journey.