Education is an essential service

by Tim Middleton

What are children learning during this pandemic? In one sense, that is an easy question to answer: They are learning nothing as schools are closed. However, we do like to believe that learning is not simply confined to school. So what are they learning? Once again, that is quite simple: One thing they are learning is that education is not important, that education is not essential.

As lockdown restrictions have been gradually eased, we discover that low-risk services are opened, even though they may be low-priority, while high-priority services, which are deemed to be high-risk, are relegated down the list of essential services. In other words, we choose the easy over the essential, which brings to mind the words of the two-term US President, Dwight D Eisenhower: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Children are learning that car wash, dry cleaning, new clothes, hardware items, photos, takeaways are more essential than education. Priorities have clearly changed.

Education has all the hallmarks of being essential. It has long been held that education is absolutely necessary, enshrined after all in national constitutions as being obligatory. Education is fundamental, at the very foundation of everything that follows in life. Education is vital, as was most prominently seen during the hyper-inflation years preceding 2008 when the country survived because schools continued operating. In other words, education is essential.

We can go further than that, though. If education is seen to be a human right (it is), does that not make it essential? If child welfare is seen to be a right (it is), surely that makes education essential. After all, it is not just a child’s health that determines his welfare, but also his intellectual, social, physical, emotional and spiritual development. If education forms part of the civil service (it does), surely that makes it essential. If education is indeed a service (it is; it is not a business), then surely that makes it essential, in exactly the same way that nursing is.

Without question we have a moral responsibility to look after the children of this country. Yes, we must ensure their health is secured but that is not all we must do. We must ensure every aspect of their life is covered. We are told that the health of the population is paramount but what makes the children’s homes any safer or healthier than the schools? How well supervised are they at home compared to school? Are they less likely to succumb to Covid-19 at home in the supposed lockdown than at school? They may actually be in more danger by not going to schools, by being imprisoned in their own homes with little to do.

Furthermore, if the purpose of ensuring the health of every child is paramount so that life goes on, then life must go on. When there have been far more cases of death caused by malaria than by Covid-19, do we prevent people from going to areas where they may catch malaria? No, people are advised to take due precautions. Of course, people might well argue that there is no point in someone being educated if they are not healthy, but the opposite is equally true:

What is the point of being healthy if there is no education?

Education is an essential service; it always has been and remains so even (in fact, especially) in difficult, harrowing, uncertain times. If so, then we essentially have two options in this current pandemic. If we cannot open schools, then we must offer off-campus, on-going learning (not necessarily on-line learning). However, if we cannot do it remotely, then we must open schools. It has to be one or the other (it cannot be both, teachers being human). That is the essence of the matter. And it is not just about examination classes being allowed back; after all, every child is following a curriculum leading to an external examination, be it next year or the following year or the following one. More importantly, education is not simply about examinations; it is about life and learning.

The reality is that if we do not open schools or offer off-campus ongoing learning, our children’s education is continuing. The only problem is they are also learning many wrong things. They are learning each new day that their education is not important, not essential; they are learning that education is not a priority. There is one word to describe that, the same word that is used to describe the pandemic: Sickening!

l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.

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