Education post-COVID – a life or death decision?

COVID-19 has placed education at high risk around the world. In Wales, the way forward is guided by Well-being of Future Generations Act of 2015. Jane Davidson, Pro Vice-Chancellor Emeritus at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, was a leading architect of that groundbreaking legislation when, from 2007 to 2011, she was Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing in Wales. Her book #futuregen: lessons from a small country was published last month.

On 4 June 2020, I published my first book, #futuregen: lessons from a small country, which tells the story of why Wales was the first country in the world to enshrine the Sustainable Development Goals and the Brundtland definition of sustainable development into law with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act in 2015.

The book was due to be published at the internationally renowned Hay Festival, a feast of literary talks and events which attract annual audiences of over 250,000 people to the tiny Welsh market town nestled on the banks of the River Wye. And all those plans changed with COVID. The peace and tranquillity of our small country was shattered by an invisible killer, stalking our lives – and our way of life.

Community spirit

Living where I do, close to the coast in rural Wales, our experience of COVID in the early weeks was linked to shortages – flour, toilet paper, food staples – that somehow never got beyond the cities to those of us living on the edge.

But almost instantly, the kindness of strangers and the strength of the local community stepped in: when I was sick, it was young local volunteers who picked up my medicine, and wonderful fresh food was delivered by local growers and producers. Our local miller rose to the flour challenge and now supplies all the local shops.

A community Facebook group was set up to brief people on issues relating to the virus and Welsh Government rules – different and more cautious than England – and a companion group was set up focused on highlighting positivity in these turbulent times.

Across Wales and the UK, we entered the sudden realisation that it was the NHS and other care workers, the food producers, the volunteers, the bin collectors, the van deliverers who kept us safe in the face of the threat.

Ever the optimist, I wrote in a preface to my book, “In the interests of future generations, when this threat is over, there will be an opportunity to capitalise on our rediscovered kindness and sense of society, to celebrate the importance of nature, to build on our increased virtual engagement to act on that other silent killer – climate change – for the benefit of current and future generations.”

Danger ahead

Last week, I read the UNESCO International Commission on the Futures of Education’s report, Education in a post-COVID World: Nine ideas for Public Action, and I realised that my optimistic vision needed some real underpinning action to stop the opposite happening.

Many of us have used the lockdown as a time for reflection and networking, garnering a green collective vision on how responsible governments could respond to the COVID global crisis and #buildbackbetter, #resettheneedle, introduce a #greennewdeal – anything that might stop a return to the fossil fuel economies we need to extinguish.

But the reality for those not in our privileged position is that all governments will now be turbo-charged in the interest of getting people back to work at all costs – and off the government payroll. Businesses will go under, millions of jobs as well as lives will be lost which potentially could create a savage rip through access to opportunity for the poorest and most unequal societies in the world, driving down wages, increasing exploitative labour practices and plunging millions more into poverty while the disease still has us all in its sights.

The risks to education

It is looking increasingly likely that one of the biggest losses might be the withdrawal of educational opportunities to the next generation. 

In the introduction to the Commission’s work, the Chair – Her Excellency Sahle-Work Zewde, President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia – makes a very powerful point: “There is a serious risk that COVID-19 will wipe out several decades of progress – most notably the progress that has been made in addressing poverty and gender equality…This is not something we should accept; we must do everything in our power to prevent it. COVID-19 has the potential to radically reshape our world, but we must not passively sit back and observe what plays out. Now is the time for public deliberation and democratic accountability. Now is the time for intelligent collective action.” 

So what does intelligent collective action look like? I’m writing this on the day that Wales’s schoolchildren started going back to school for the first time since the lockdown started on 23 March 2020. Currently, Wales is the only part of the UK where all children are re-commencing their schooling in an organised fashion, but not as they know it. The nature of our weather and the age of our school buildings means that some schools will only be able to have 20% of their pupils in at any one time to avoid spreading the disease further.

Although the intention is that all children will have been assessed by teachers before the end of the summer term in mid-July, we are seeing huge variations between those whose parents are actively educating them at home, those who are children of key workers and therefore are still in school, and those who have had no educational input from family or state and are at increasing risk of being left behind.

We don’t know what public examinations will look like. We don’t know what university entrance will look like. We don’t know if young people will want to go to university this year without the physical experience; we don’t know if they will be able to go to college – and we don’t know who has been lost in the wake of this unequal disease.

But we do know that this has to be the time for action, for public deliberation and democratic accountability to ensure that those hard-won educational gains across the globe in taking people out of poverty, of improving girls’ educational chances, of moving towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not lost – because it literally could be the difference between life and death.

Meeting the crisis

It’s extraordinary how quickly systems we take for granted can break down if they are not fit for purpose. It is equally extraordinary how adaptable and imaginative we can be in response.

If I had launched my book at the physical Hay Festival, I would perhaps have had an audience of 200 people; by participating in two digital events at Hay and three others in the launch week, my global audience was nearer 10,000.

I have spent most of my adult life trying to increase chances for future generations – as a teacher, youth worker, anti-poverty campaigner, mum, education minister, environment minister, university practitioner – each time, I hope, contributing in a small way to the solution rather than the problem.

But for it to break down as it has, so quickly and in so many countries? How can it be that a system of such profound importance to the life chances of the young of the world can be so flimsy? Is it because the “education” itself that young people are receiving is itself not fit for purpose? Neither in content nor process?

I hope that the messages from the Commission on the necessity of the provision of access to and funding for public education are heard. There is one recommendation in particular that speaks to my soul, and in my view would cut through the core of the problem, and that is about trust and good practice.  “The Commission calls on everyone with educational responsibilities, from government officials to teachers to parents, to prioritize the participation of students and young people broadly in order to co-construct with them the change they wish to see.” As goes the adage, “nothing about us without us”.

Legislating for the Well-being of Future Generations

In Wales, the only country in the world with a Well-being of Future Generations Act, the law requires the Welsh Government and all its public services to deliver on seven goals aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals, and to prioritise five ways of working: to think preventatively, long term, collaboratively, in an integrated way and to involve those affected in the decisions.

All schools have pupil councils and most are eco-schools. There is an active youth parliament, a Children’s Commissioner and a Future Generations’ Commissioner who has set up a young leaders’ academy.

The new curriculum which will be in place by 2022 is predicated on building resilience, on areas of learning rather than subjects. Its development has been influenced by young people and it is designed to adapt as necessary.

It takes 15 years to change a curriculum in the UK from nursery entry at the age of three to a university entrant at the age of 18. We still operate to a 19th-century agrarian calendar in deciding when we take holidays. Yet there are no absolute laws that govern these processes, only conventions – and COVID has cut through those.

Without a Well-being of Future Generations Act it would be harder to focus on the needs of future generations when the pressure from current ones will be so great. But if countries do respond to the challenge set by UNESCO that “Now is the time for public deliberation and democratic accountability. Now is the time for intelligent collective action” , let’s make that collective action a global push to protect young people’s rights to education on a healthy planet – and help them educate us of the importance of delivering such an outcome.

There is no better adage than “do unto future generations what you would have had past generations do unto you” (John Rawls). There is no better time than now to demonstrate that education is the most effective tool to deliver.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash: