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May 31, 2020

Do we need physical schools?

Opinion

May 31, 2020

Amid the chaos and disruption caused by Covid-19, education has been forced to adapt to a new modus operandi. Over 1.2 billion children around the world now find themselves out of school; many of them are using some kind of distance learning.

Once we finally return to some level of normality, the question will arise: With online learning currently in widespread use, could education move online permanently?

There are plenty of benefits. To begin with, the savings that could be secured by eliminating the need for brick-and-mortar schools would be significant. It would be a welcome reduction in the government’s budget. In the short term, this money could be reinvested into developing and implementing a new online learning system, centralising and streamlining the educational experience.

There are also clear long term advantages as students will get used to independent learning far more quickly. A study suggests that those undergoing online training retain between 25 and 60 per cent more material than by traditional methods.

Online education is not a totally new phenomenon. Institutions such as the Open University, University College London and Manchester University (among many others) have provided distance learning opportunities long before the emergence of Covid-19.

However, though there may be some select advantages, the disadvantages are far greater. Firstly, there is the pressing issue of caring for children at home all day. Families where both parents work would be unable to stay home whilst students toil. Schools also currently provide extensive social support to vulnerable children, the provision of which would no longer be possible. Similar issues also persist in the inability to provide free meals to the students and families who rely upon them, while special needs students may not be able to be cared for sufficiently at home.

Furthermore, the wider effects of inequality could arguably increase disparity between the quality of education for children in different socio-economic circumstances. Even if the government stepped in to provide, for example, computers, there are numerous other obstacles to bridging the gap. Those in lower-income households could suffer from the lack of a stable internet connection (research suggests that around 1 million children in the UK do not have adequate access to the internet) or a lack of suitable working and learning conditions at home.

In addition, doing away with physical schools would cause significant damage to the wider economy. There would inevitably be a loss of jobs for the various support staff working at schools.

Stationery shops, school uniform producers, companies providing schools coaches — all of these types of businesses that have long-existed in the orbit of the schooling system would inevitably take a major hit. The negative educational ramifications of shifting learning to an online approach would be profound.

While it is all well and good talking of the development of independent learning within students, for the students who struggle already and require extra support, the gap between their peers would be exacerbated into a yawning chasm.

The spread of results across a class would only widen, separating those who can cope with a degree of self-teaching, and those who cannot, a point recently raised by Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector.

Perhaps the greatest impact of a move online would be the social changes for the children themselves. Schools are the perfect incubators within which children are able to develop the social skills necessary to navigate the world of adults.

If online learning actively hinders the development of social skills in a child through the limiting of such interactions, then online learning as a permanent solution should carry little weight. Online systems currently cater largely to adults and more mature students, so adaptations to current technology would plainly have to be much more extensive.

Even though the above thought experiment is certainly relevant, it largely depends upon the outcome of our current situation. The lockdown has forced a move to online learning for almost all students across the UK. Upon the inevitable return to schools once the situation is safe, the success of online learning as an educational tool will be laid bare.

Another question that needs asking is this: what if distance learning becomes a necessity in the future? Even though the current lockdown will come to an end at some point, we should now consider the possibility of another situation, virus or otherwise, in which students attending physical schools is not feasible, a situation in which a return to online learning is mandated. For this, developing a rigorous plan for schooling based upon the lessons learned from our current situation is plainly sensible.

In truth, the practical realities and challenges of implementing permanent online learning for all children are probably too much of a hurdle to overcome. The drawbacks outweigh the benefits; we are unlikely to see a major shift to online learning once the wider Covid-19 crisis has settled— it certainly is not something being considered by ministers, who probably have more pressing concerns right now. However, pending the outcome of the experiment currently being undertaken by millions of students at this very moment, the potential for some usage of online learning at a smaller, more limited scale (for college and sixth form students only, for example) may still arise. The potential for change clearly exists; the only question is the scope.

The writer is a student at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School Blackburn