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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions podcast - COVID-19 Inquiry: The impact on Education

Posted on 26 October 2022

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The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  Conversations on the legal topics affecting businesses and individuals today.

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

In this first episode in our new series on the Covid Inquiry, we focus on the implications of the Inquiry for the Education sector, with Sam Freedman, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government, Senior Advisor to the educational charity, Ark, and amongst other previous roles, Former Senior Policy Advisor in the Department for Education and Executive Director of Teach First, as well as all-round Twitter and Substack guru. 

Hello and welcome to the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions podcast.  I’m Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education at Mishcon de Reya.  Hi Sam, thanks so much for joining us. 

Sam Freedman

Hello.

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

So, I’m going to start Sam by asking you a very teacher-like question, as an ex-teacher myself.  What grade would you give the UK’s management of our public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic, both generally and in relation to education?  You can give it an A Level style A* to ABs or GCSE style 1 to 9. 

Sam Freedman

So, the problem with this question of course is that there were bits of the response that worked very well and bits that were disastrous so giving a sort of overall grade feels like you’re missing the bigger picture.  You know, you might give a C overall but you know there’d be an A* for the vaccine rollout and a sort of E for the initial social care response.  When it comes to the education response specifically, you know I think that was, that was quite poor and quite deprioritised by Government as they were dealing with all the, with the sort of health response.  But no, I don’t think you can give a single grade, I think they did some things well, some things badly and the difference between those things could tell us quite a lot about where the State works well and where it doesn’t work well. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

So, in relation to education specifically, where you think it wasn’t prioritised, I mean what aspects of the Covid response do you think would be of most interest to the Inquiry?

Sam Freedman

So, I think they need to look at the way in which decisions were made about schools and the lack of thought that was given to the consequences for young people.  So, just some examples, the DfE weren’t in the room when the decision was to do the school closures.  All of the decisions around that were made in Number 10 without listening to the DfE, who were the ones who were talking to schools and colleges and unions and so on.  The sort of Head Teachers unions were pushing for schools to come back earlier during the first lockdown.  I think everyone accepted there needed to be a period of closure but they were pushing for an earlier opening but again that was, that was ignored and the DfE was sort of ignored in the process.  We saw the same thing happening in January with the second lockdown.  On the day the decision was made to close schools again and to cancel exams, there was a big all-staff meeting at the DfE where they were being told that that wasn’t going to happen.  They didn’t know and because, again, it was a decision that they were involved in and thereby that schools were involved in either so, I think the sort of almost disdain with which the question of education was treated, is something that you’d want the Inquiry to look at and obviously the consequences that that’s had for young people, both in terms of their academic success and sort of the learning loss issue but, but much more widely than that, on their mental health, on safeguarding, on all sorts of other related issues where schools play a very important role in young people’s lives.

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

And do you think, you know, the word you used, ‘disdain’, disdain for education, do you think that’s something specific to the Government that we have and had at the time or do you think it says something more systemic about the British state that education was treated as such a low priority in its response to the pandemic?

Sam Freedman

I think that it says something about the way that the Covid response was being co-ordinated and how centralised it was, which brought with it some strengths but also, also a lot of, a lot of weaknesses and one of them was sort of cutting out a lot of viewpoints during the course of the pandemic.  Every country, almost every country, to some extent had a schools, schools lockdown but I think that we were particularly lacking in discussion about the consequences of that and particularly lacking in resources sort of put to managing the consequences and if you look at most European countries, they managed for instance their examination process much better than we did, which was partly, you know, a consequence of having much more engagement with schools, with the sector and not trying to do everything very centrally.  And again, you know, if you look at what’s happened to the English education system over the last forty years, it’s become super, super centralised.  Local Authorities have been largely cut out of education and repeatedly, one of the repeated mistakes the DfE made, was to try and do everything themselves without using Local Authorities to help them, so for instance the distribution of laptops, they tried to do that with one central procurement, it was very difficult, it was delayed, it took forever to get laptops to the schools that needed them.  They did it with school meals when they said we’re gonna you know provide meals over holiday periods and during the lockdowns, again they tried to do it through a single, central procurement, not by using, using local authority networks.  With exams, again it was all very centralised, no attempt to sort of use local networks.  That didn’t happen anywhere else in Europe because their system is nowhere near as centralised, so I think there are, it did raise some quite important questions about the level of centralisation in our system, which I think, you know, even before the pandemic were causing issues.

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

Well you’re, you’re a veteran of Michael Gove’s Department for Education and obviously, probably one of the most well-known aspects of Michael Gove’s tenure as Education Secretary was the very rapid academisation.  One of the features of turning schools from being managed by Local Authorities into being part of academies, either individual academies or academy trusts, is to cut out that layer between the local education and Whitehall.  Do you think that that is part of the story of where things then went wrong because what you didn’t have were the mediators to help schools deal with local issues?

Sam Freedman

So, I don’t think it’s a necessary consequence of moving to a multi-academy trust based system that you therefore cannot have a role for the local authority, in fact I think you can have a strengthened role for the local authority in precisely this kind of support for young people because they’re not then responsible for the schools directly and actually, in the 2010 White Paper which I was involved in writing, it sort of promises a new role for the local authority, as champion for young people, which would have been perfect during the pandemic if they had been set up in that way, to be able to then deliver a lot of these support services, whether food or laptops or whatever, to the schools in their area.  Of course that never happened, that bit of the White Paper got lost and it was repeated again in the 2016 White Paper but that also got lost, sort of repeated again in the White Paper earlier this year but that’s already, you know, four Secretaries of State ago, so you know it’s sort of been there rhetorically but has never happened in practice and what’s happened in practice is that Secretaries of State have been very loath to use Local Authorities, they’ve almost seen them as the enemy…

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

Part of the blob. 

Sam Freedman

Part of the blob, right, and that’s incredibly unhelpful.  For me, academisation should have been a mechanism to create a more coherent role for the local authority, rather than cutting them out altogether. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

That’s very interesting.  Moving onto the Inquiry itself and when the draft Terms of Reference for the Inquiry were first published for consultation, there was no mention of children and young people.  After considerable criticism from key stakeholders, the impact on children and young people was explicitly added to the Terms of Reference but what do you think both the initial oversight of this issue and the strong immediate reaction tells us about the focus of the Inquiry and the areas of likely controversy?

Sam Freedman

It’s an interesting question.  I mean, I think these inquiries are incredibly complex things.  My father was on the Chilcot Inquiry, so I spent some, many of my younger years watching a sort of extremely lengthy and complex inquiry play out and I saw that came in for a lot of criticism, which I could see wasn’t really fair because what they were trying to do was so, was so complex.  So I would hope that it was just an oversight on the part of the Inquiry because I don’t think you could realistically do a proper inquiry into what happened without looking at the affect on children and young people.  I do think there’s probably a concern that they’re going to be overly focussed purely on the public health aspect.  One of the things I don’t like about the way the Terms of Reference are set up is that the aims are specified in terms of preventing a similar response to a future pandemic, it’s written in terms of a future pandemic, whereas I think it should be framed broader as about ensuring the State is more resilient to all sorts of future shocks that it might face, whether it’s a pandemic or some other kind of sort of tail risk and I’m worried it’s going to focus too much on, on the sort of narrow questions of health rather than the sort of the wider society but I hope I’m wrong about that. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

There’s also no explicit mention of safeguarding and child protection in the Terms of Reference.  Do you think that’s a significant oversight?

Sam Freedman

There is a mention of social care, so I’m hoping that that sort of mention means that that can be covered.  I do think it’s a really important issue, I mean we’ve seen domestic abuse cases rise a lot during lockdowns and I believe they’re still at a higher level than they were pre-pandemic.  Indeed we’ve seen, you know the number of children going into care rising consistently year on year since, since 2010 and with the big increase in child poverty we’re seeing, you know we’ve seen over the last few years and with more unfortunately to come, that tends to be linked to rising abuse cases as well, so I think there are some quite serious issues around social care that it would be good to have covered.  I think the sort of safeguarding within schools, it wasn’t a particularly big issue, I think that was done fine but I think that sort of broader question of how well children are being treated by their families at home is one that does need to be picked up. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

The impact on children and young people has been one of the most controversial aspects of the Covid response with debates around school closures, mask mandates and vaccinations, attracting a fairly poisonous debate in the scientific community as well, and more widely.  Do you think the Inquiry might struggle to cut through some fairly intrenched positions on the effectiveness of the public health response?

Sam Freedman

I mean yes, the debate has got quite nasty and has been throughout.  I think it’s got nastier in the last few months, partly because a lot of people who sort of had been paying quite close attention to these debates have drifted off to thinking about other things and they’ve been acting as a bit of a mediating influence on the debate and the only people left are the people with extremely strong views, who still want to have their sort of daily fight about zero Covid or masks or whatever.  But actually, I think the Inquiry should be able to cut through all of that, again, you know, as someone who sort of watched the Iraq inquiry from a, from a privileged position, people clearly had extremely strong views on that issue as well and that, that was an extremely toxic, public debate but the Inquiry sort of went about its job anyway and sort of came up with a conclusion that, that was sort of fair, rather than one that tried to reflect the position of one camp or another.  And I hope this Inquiry will do the same but I think the sort of difficulty of the debate reflects a genuine difficulty in the trade-off between the impact on children’s lives from schools closure, which are extremely real and painful and obviously the sort of public health value of a lockdown.  I think the frustration for someone like me watching the debate has been the inability of the most extreme on either side to recognise that that trade-off exits at all but it is the nature of social media. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

Yeah. 

Sam Freedman

I suspect that social media amplifies, as it does on every issue, absolutely the most extremely positions and most people sat in the middle are being like “right, I just don’t really know” and “god, this is a difficult problem” and the more extreme an argument gets, the more the large, moderate majority just sits it out because they don’t fancy being shouted at, which, so it just becomes more and more extreme.  It’s a sort of vicious cycle. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

Yeah.  But I mean the extent to which you can at least see online members of the scientific community tearing strips out of each other, still, is a kind of reflect of what a poisonous topic it became.

Sam Freedman

And it does raise quite an interesting question because of course at the beginning of all of this, you know, in the first few weeks, the sort of mantra was we’ve got to listen to the science.  It was very clear that there isn’t one scientific view and never has been and I think that this is sort of one of the biggest questions for the Inquiry, for me in a way, is how does the Government make effective use of expert advice, when that expert advice is not consistent?  How do you, as a non-scientific politician make sense of these disagreements within the scientific community and ask the right questions?  And actually, that was, not to keep coming back to it, but that was one of the key findings from the Chilcot Inquiry was that a lot of the expert advice that Blair was being given was wrong but he didn’t ask the right questions, so how do, and I think that’s also true from, certainly from my perspective of Boris Johnson and his team in the first few weeks of the pandemic, was they weren’t asking the right questions.  So how do you support politicians to do that effectively in the face of conflicting expert advice?

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

So what questions should they have been asking?

Sam Freedman

So, I think they should have been, you know, asking for rather than just assuming that the sort of scenarios they were being given were accurate, they should have been asking for worst case scenarios, they should have been pointing to the television screen and saying look what’s happening in Italy, can you explain why that is not going to happen here, given the basis of your advice?  You know, they had the data from the sort of initial cruise ship where there had been an outbreak.  You could see, you didn’t need any scientific expertise to see that the NHS wasn’t going to be able to cope with an outbreak of the strength that had happened in places that had already had Covid so, how was that consistent?  And of course they did get to that point, it just took them three, four weeks longer than it should have done to get to that point and those were a really crucial three or four weeks.  So there’s a sort of almost, there’s a lot of criticism for the Government for ignoring expert advice and people will always pull out Michael Gove’s quote about you know we’ve had enough of experts but actually there’s a, it almost goes the other way, sometimes Government can be far too accepting of expert advice, especially if they’ve got a group of experts who fall into a bit of a group think pattern. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

But I mean that might explain the Spring 2020 but by Winter 2020, the same decision-making issues happened, so you know the school closures didn’t happen until the day after the first day of term or the day of the first day of term. 

Sam Freedman

Yes, so schools came back for one day.  It was completely ridiculous. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

But at that point, my understanding of the type of scientific advice the Government were getting was fairly clear what the problems were so, I mean I guess this is something for the Inquiry to find out but is it perhaps more a question of who was in charge?

Sam Freedman

So, so, yes, so I think the second, the issues of questions around the second lockdown are much more egregious than the first and then they’re two different sets of questions, right, so I think the first one is about overly rigidly sticking to the existing pandemic plan, it’s about how you question experts effectively, how the Government mobilises, how the centre of Government works with individual departments, as we’ve talked about with the DfE.  These are sort of questions of the structure of the State.  For the second lockdown, we knew that, you know we had enough information, the expert advice was clear because they’d had sort of six, seven months of sort of watching the disease unfold, plenty of people in Government understood the risks, I mean obviously this is something Dominic Cummings who was still Chief of Staff at that point, has spoken about a lot and I completely believe his account, for what it’s worth.  At that point, it comes down to the decision making of the people in charge, Boris Johnson and, and Rishi Sunak, who I think was pushing Johnson in the wrong direction quite hard, and for that part of the Inquiry, I think it is much more about you know why were politicians making bad decisions in the face of very, very clear evidence?

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

So, you’ve been a fairly outspoken critic of the 2020 and 2021 non-examined A Level and GCSE grades and a robust defender of public exams.  In the event of future, similar school closures, do you think there’s a way we can better assess students in public exams?

Sam Freedman

Yes.  So, I think the way exams were handled was probably one of the weakest points of the DfE response and deeply frustrating for schools, for parents, for young people.  The initial plan in 2020 was to, was to use a sort of algorithm.  I believe that could have worked.  It obviously wouldn’t have been ideal, it would have always better to do exams than not do exams because that’s always going to give you more accurate information but the Irish Government used a process using an algorithm and it worked fine because they were flexible and did it carefully with schools.  Our process didn’t work because Ofqual didn’t work properly with schools and ignored warnings and the Government weren’t paying, you know Gavin Williamson who was the Education Secretary and DfE weren’t paying close enough attention to what was happening so it all went horribly wrong and they ended up in a mess and having to use teacher assessed grades, which then led to massive grade inflation and all the sort of consequent problems that that caused.  2021 was again even more egregious because they’d seen what happened in 2020 and rather than put in place a more sensible process in case it happened again, they just pretended it wasn’t going to happen again and then suddenly when it did happen again, they weren’t ready, they didn’t have anything alternative to do and we ended up back again with teacher assessed grades and even more grade inflation, which is now having to be pulled back, so we’re going to have essentially five, six years of public exams that aren’t comparable to each other, which is very unfair on young people, it means a lot of young people won’t have been treated fairly, they’ll you know they’ll have contemporaries who get to go to top universities that they should have had that place, you know, it’s all a bit hidden because we don’t know what should have happened but it is a real consequences on people’s lives as a result of this, this mess up.  So, so to your question of what could you do differently in future?  I think there are ways of doing standardised assessments that don’t require as much time in an exam hall as sort of the normal full set.  So, what I would like to see is a sort of resilience plan for the exam system, where you could have a sort of essentially a shorter series of papers that could potentially be done online at home, if absolutely necessary but could also be done in school classrooms that give you enough information to, but perhaps with some teacher assessed grades, to come up with a fairer, fairer set of exam results but I think overall, what this has shown is that, is the incredible importance of public exams that have standardised external assessment and it is much fairer than any alternative system that anyone would be able to come up with. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

Talking about resilience, are we just too reliant on in-person, assessed exams at one moment in time?  I mean, when I did A Levels, I was in the module cohort and at least if, if a lockdown had happened, say in March of my, of my Year 13, I would have had a load of modules under my belt.  You would have been able to say, actually pretty definitely my mark, what my grades were going to be because it was already pretty obvious.  I thought that system was quite good.  It seems to me fairly retrograde to have moved backwards from that and it’s made us a lot less resilient.

Sam Freedman

Yeah and I think, so I think the old system, the sort of modular system, which was used for GCSEs and A Level did have its flaws in that young people being examined sort of all the time, which is I don’t think ideal and also that you had to break up learning into quite small chunks in order to do it that way.  I think, you know there are advantages to doing linear exams but it doesn’t need to be all linear, right, there’s a balance between the two positions.  I think particularly for A Levels, the decision to go from the AS system to the one we have now was a mistake.  What used to happen was that you did your sort of AS exams at the end of your first year of A Levels and that counted towards your final grade, so it gave universities some information about you, it meant that you know in this kind of pandemic situation there were would have been some grades that you could have solidly.  I don’t think there was much of a justification for getting rid of that and you could bring back that model rather than having pure linear but I’m not sure you want very regular modularisation because I think it actually has some quite negative impacts on learning.

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

Yeah, well I mean, ruined two successive Christmas holidays for me so, quite.  And I’ll never get those ones back.  So, picking up on what you said about how the centre assessed and teacher assessed grades actually highlighted the importance of public examinations, you’ve been quite a strong supporter of public examinations, why do you think the people who are calling for ending public exams altogether or, at the least, scrapping GCSEs are wrong?

Sam Freedman

I think it’s because they don’t understand the purposes of assessment.  Clearly there are negative sides to assessment.  You know, they take up a lot of learning time, they can distort the curriculum, they can be stressful for young people of course, they’re quite expensive for schools, you can point out a list of problems with exams but there’s a reason they exist and the reason they exist is because they have a big impact on young people’s lives, we sort young people into institutions.  We have a very, very selective higher education system, where the difference from going to sort of a top university and a sort of one quite a way down the list can be a couple of grades.  We have an increasingly selective post-16 system, where people can do their A Levels and if the way that we allow people to be selected for those systems isn’t fair, the people that will benefit from that are the wealthiest in society who will always be able to game the system if it is gameable, and we saw that with centre assessed grades.  Lindsey Macmillan at UCL did a great piece of research which showed that if you compared where young people were on the algorithm versus what they were given by their teachers, children with graduate parents, with richer parents, did better, they were given better teacher grades than they “deserved” [in quotation marks] versus children with parents who perhaps weren’t in a position to advocate so strongly on their behalf.  And that is why externally assessed standardised exams are so important because without that, you will always drift you know away from merit and towards privilege.  That’s why exams were introduced in the first place, to sort of try and move away from that.  So, I can understand of course why people have criticisms of exams but they have to acknowledge the cost of not having exams and what that would mean for children particularly from lower income backgrounds. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

So I can see the argument for A Levels or equivalent.  When it comes to GCSEs though, am I right in understanding that we’re the only European country that has uniform public assessments for sixteen?

Sam Freedman

No, almost all European countries have some kind of assessment at the end of lower secondary and before young move into upper secondary.  We are unusual in the number of exams at that age that we ask young people to do and the extent to which they are all done in that kind of linear, end of course, exam hall way.  Other European countries use a lot more continuous assessment, coursework and things like that but everyone does have some kind of system because every country sorts, every country has a vocational and academic system for upper secondary and young people have to be sorted into that system one way or the other.  What makes us particularly unusual is the extent to which our HE system, our higher education system, is selective.  Most European countries, you might have some differentiation between universities but broadly speaking, people go to their you know, local university.  In Germany, you can sort of more or less go to wherever you want and then they tend to have very high drop out rates, so there is a cost of having that model but it’s just much less selective, which means there’s much less importance placed on the GCSEs because they’re, they’re not directing your life path in the same way that we use them for here, so I think that’s the reason we can’t just say oh well, so this European country does it this way, why can’t we copy them, it’s because our objectives of assessment are different from those countries and that’s why we’ve ended up with quite a rigorous system because it matters so much what young people get in those exams.  But given only half of students go on to higher education anyway… Yeah but it’s still half so, and that’s a lot of young people and it’s a number that’s going up still, despite all the sort of countervailing pressures and I suspect it will eventually get to the sort of 60, 70% we see in places like Korea and so on, you know I don’t think it’s, we’re going to see a drop in the numbers going to higher education.  And even if you’re not going onto that, you may want to do an apprenticeship for instance, Level 3 apprenticeship or degree level apprenticeship and those courses, those programmes can be just as selective, if not more so, than the top universities and I think it’s a while since I’ve looked at the data but certainly a few years ago, the BT apprenticeship scheme was more competitive than Oxbridge so, even if you’re sort of going down a vocational path, it still really matters the result that you get.

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

Going back to the Covid Inquiry, in many ways this feels like a story that hasn’t finished.  There continues to be disquiet about failures to address the impact of Covid on education, such as deficiencies in the national tutoring programme and this year’s proposed return to pre-Covid grading boundaries.  What do you think are the most pressing current education issues to address the impact of Covid?

Sam Freedman

I think the most pressing issue is around social services around schools and the additional services for young people around schools, so I think there has been an academic affect, particularly on maths, we can see that now in the data.  It’s not huge and I think it’s manageable, largely within schools so if there was, not that there’s much money around for anything at the moment but if there was money around, I would focus it on the sort of non-academic side of, the pastoral side if you like of young people’s lives.  We’ve seen a huge increase in referrals to the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service, which was already under a huge strain before the pandemic and then we’ve seen a doubling of referrals since the pandemic and in many parts of the country it simply ceased to operate and then the amount of time young people are having to wait for appointments is crazy and the level of need that you have to have to get an appointment is crazy as well.  So, you know, mental health is one example, we’ve talked a bit about social care and the impact on social work, which is also under huge pressure as well, so it’s kind of that aspect and also the impact of poverty which are tangentially related to Covid in the sense that economic impacts have sort of pushed the Government into decisions that have left many more young people into poverty.  So all of these things around children’s lives becoming much harder since 2020, have a huge impact on schools because they’re the ones that have to pick up the pieces.  I’ve used this phrase before, they’ve become the provider of last resort because they’re the, they are the place that have to take the kids every day and if they’ve got problems that aren’t being supported by other parts of the system, whether that’s the Mental Health Service, whether that’s social care, it’s schools who have to, who have to do their best to deal with those problems even though they’re not resourced and not trained to do so.  So if you talk to Head Teachers at the moment and school leaders, that is where the biggest need is, fix all the services around schools, then that leaves them a lot more space to focus on what they should be doing, which is the focus on learning. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

So it’s really interesting actually that you, that you see those wider social and pastoral issues as being more urgent that the specific educational ones. 

Sam Freedman

Yes and I think actually that it would have been quite hard for Government to do something about the academic side beyond just giving schools more money and making them better funded, which would be a generally good thing but wouldn’t be a specifically Covid response.

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

Which is what Sir Kevan Collins, who was catch-up tsar, who asked for. 

Sam Freedman

Yeah, I mean I think basically what Sir Kevan was trying to do, which was get some more money for schools, right, which I think is always a good thing but, but his actual proposals sort of extending the school day, the tuition programme which if we’re honest hasn’t really worked, I mean we haven’t had a proper evaluation yet but I don’t think it’s been very effective, you know really we just need to give schools the resources to do, to do their job better rather than trying to come up with Central Government programmes to fix that learning loss issue.  But on the pastoral side, you know, there, schools really do need the support of the State because they’re not, that’s not their job, they’re not there to solve mental health problems, they’re not there to solve domestic abuse cases and that’s where they do need other parts of the sector to be functioning properly and they need Government to intervene to make sure that they can do that. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

So why might a body in the education sector such as an academy trust, a university, a teachers’ union, why might they want to be a participant in the Inquiry?

Sam Freedman

I think to emphasise the impacts of Covid on schools and the education system and the costs to young people, I think it is important to have voices in the Inquiry doing that and to set out how shambolic it was for them, the experience of trying to live through this period with Government acting so poorly and giving such unclear advice and changing guidance from day-to-day and you know, this sort of absurdity we’ve already mentioned of schools being open for one day in January 2021 then closing and all of that, so I think it’s important for that story to be told to the Inquiry by people who lived through it.  You know, so all of the groups you mentioned, multi-academy trusts, school leaders, unions etc are the ones who can tell that story most effectively. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

So, finishing off, what do you think we’ve learnt about education in the UK through the pandemic that can help us prepare better for future public health emergencies or like you said, other, other tail risks that might happen?

Sam Freedman

I think we’ve learnt, as we’ve talked a bit about before, I think we’ve sort of, it’s been driven home the problem of centralisation and the problem of lack of strong local government involvement in children’s lives and I think it’s really driven home the need to have a proper families and children strategy that integrates schools, Local Authorities and the Health Service as well, which has been missing for over a decade now from Government thinking and then I think beyond education, you know if you look at the State in general, it’s driven home how we’ve been over-focussed on efficiency and not nearly focussed enough on resilience and I think that was very clear with the Health Service as well, you know running the Health Service so hot put us in a position where when this hit, we just couldn’t cope and it fell over in a way that other European systems didn’t and I think, you know, that’s probably true to some degree or another across the public sector, we’ve run everything right at the edges of viability, to try and keep things affordable but the cost of doing that is a real lack of resilience, so balancing those two things in the future as well and not thinking all the time, oh this is excess capacity, we don’t need it but actually that excess capacity could be quite useful in an emergency, that mindset shift could be quite important. 

Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education, Mishcon de Reya

I think we’re going to have to end there.  I could keep asking you and tapping your brain on this issue forever, so it’s been, it’s been so interesting and really, and really helpful.  I’d like to say thanks so much to Sam Freedman for joining me for this Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions podcast.  I’m Robert Lewis.  Thank you very much. 

The Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts, all available at Mishcon.com and if you have any questions you’d like answered or suggestions of what you’d like us to cover, do let us know at digitalsessions@mishcon.com

 

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit Mishcon.com. 

In this mini series on the COVID-19 Inquiry we look at the impact thepandemic has had on different fields of individuals lives and businesses.

In this episode, Robert Lewis, Head of Education at Mishcon de Reya, talks with Sam Freedman, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government, Senior Adviser to the educational charity Ark Schools and former Senior Policy Adviser to the Secretary of State at the UK Department for Education.

What priority was given to the education sector? What were the consequences for young people and their mental health? How did the UK's response to compare to other countries? How could public assessments have been handled better?

If you have any questions about the COVID-19 Inquiry or would like to submit your experience, please get in touch with Robert Lewis.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.


Visit the Mishcon Academy for more learning, events, videos, podcasts and reports.

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