Opinion: Why Schools Should Reopen

Michael Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College, provides strong and compelling economic, developmental and societal justifications as to why it makes sense that schools reopen their doors to students this September.
This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19
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This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19

As Governor of New York Andre Cuomo recently tweeted, “you cannot put a value on a human life”. As such, if the risk to life is unacceptable, then there can be no good enough reasons to justify the reopening of schools. However, with the rate of recovery in the UAE currently outstripping the falling rate of infection there are presently many good reasons to plan for the reopening of schools in September, argues Michael Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College.

Indeed, most parents, staff and students want schools to re-open (see chart data below), academic research suggests distance learning is unevenly harming a generation (see research findings below), disruptive innovation in education is just that, disruptive (see opinion below), and the dynamic pricing demanded by some parents for online or blended learning has the potential to sabotage the quality of Dubai education system in the long term, not to mention the economic interests of Dubai and the educational outcomes of our children (see argument below).

However, neither rational argument nor righteous indignation will change education’s position within the utilitarian order of state craft: policymakers use the Value of a Statistical Life (VSL) to define how much we can afford to pay in order to save lives. Ultimately, evidence and opinion play second fiddle to the calculated cost to the economy of reopening schools.

If you are interested to know more, read on.

Data shows almost all (i.e. 90%+) of my community want us to reopen

Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape once said, “If we have data, let's look at data. If all we have are opinions, let's go with mine.” So here goes. 90% of my community want our school to be open in September if the virus is contained but not necessarily eradicated. How do I know? I asked them.

What is interesting is that when you disaggregate those preferences into the separate parent, staff and student groups still only 10% of each group want us to keep 100% online learning. So what? You run a premium standalone UK curriculum secondary school; that is hardly representative of Dubai at large. Right? Wrong. A fellow principal from a standalone UK curriculum primary school used the same survey with their parent community and do you know what? Their outcomes were not dissimilar.

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com also used the same survey and rolled it out across the emirates and do you know what? For our sub-sector (premium UK curriculum schools) the results were the same. Only 10% wanted to continue with online learning.

Yes, this will be different for different schools within the emirate and across the emirates, for different curricula, price points and ages. However, given the current conditions, a return to school is right for our sub-sector. It is also the reason why there needs to be a degree of autonomy granted so that schools can serve the demands of their own idiosyncratic communities.

Evidence reveals the negative impact of online learning

Well-researched headlines from the UK usefully extend our understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on our children’s life chances beyond the pandemic. On 16th June an Oxford University study involving 10,000 parents showed that children show an increase in mental health difficulties during distance learning with younger children in particular struggling. Similarly 1600 doctors from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK signed an open letter to Boris Johnson warning that without a physical return to school “the effects of Covid-19 will linger far beyond the pandemic itself and will limit the life chances of children and young people for years to come”.

As has been shown in the UK there is absolutely no doubt that there will be a huge variation in the quality and quantity of work set and outcomes achieved depending on the curriculum and fee bracket of schools here in the UAE. Prof Green’s work with LLAKES Centre for Research on Learning and Life Chances finds that the average amount of schoolwork being done at home, according to parents and family members, has been very low. One-fifth of pupils did no schoolwork at home, or less than an hour a day. Only 17 percent put in more than four hours a day. Green concludes, “Everyone is losing out in this generation, some much more than others. Better home schoolwork provision, and better still an early safe return to school for as many as possible, should now become a top priority for government.”

I believe disruptive innovation in education is just that, disruptive

There is a dark irony that almost all children are now being harmed because of the risk they might pass Covid-19 to adults and not to each other, and yet to some Covid-19 presents an opportunity to prolong the disruption to our children’s education.

In fact some schools will soon be labelled well-developed in the field of online learning by the federal government after the first round of Distance Learning Evaluations which took place this term. These judgements of our fledgling attempts to move online may well be used by some to promote themselves as pioneering experts in the field of e-learning. This genuinely scares me. The fact is too little is known at this stage for any school in the UAE to claim to know what well-developed distance learning looks like. We will need to see a generation of our children start and leave this kind of education before we can pass judgement on the impact on their social, emotional, physical and academic wellbeing.

Using COVID-19 to promote such disruptive innovation would be inexcusable instrumentalism if it is not underpinned by robust evidence of the like collected by Professor Francis Green from UCL’s Institute of Education. We need to know how much work our students have really been doing at home. The trouble is, as a full time working dad, I have to be honest when I say that I have no idea. I’ve been glued to my screen for the past three months and periodically will check to see if my children are still alive before resuming work. This cannot be how we make decisions.

Dynamic pricing will negatively impact the long term quality of education in the UAE

The other data, which WSA recently collected, concerned the price perception of parents. How much is online learning worth compared to in-person learning? And how much would parents like to pay for blended learning as a percentage of what they currently pay for in-person learning? According to the mode, i.e. the most commonly selected percentage, online learning was considered to be worth 50% of in-schools learning whereas blended learning was considered to be worth 70% of in-school learning.

Dynamic pricing is commonplace for many goods and services. When demand is “off the charts” at Uber, fares increase by up to 2.5x or more. Similarly airlines, hotels and commodities traders will reduce their prices due to a market slump. Dynamic pricing is therefore a hyper-competitive, highly unstable, market led pricing philosophy: the price of your daily coffee, weekly tank of fuel or summer holiday will fluctuate according to supply and demand.

This model may work for Uber, Emirates and the price of oil, however, education is not a commodity but a public good. Society needs a literate, numerate, moral and skilled workforce to sustain itself in the long term. Education cannot be simply side-lined in times of crisis in much the same way as hospitals could not be closed to save money during the same period. For schools to reopen at the standard which parents expect and society requires then they need to sustain their workforce and premises during school closures. This costs money.

Imagine, however, if we did adopt dynamic pricing as the general principle behind school fees. We would need to agree that if parents can expect dynamic price drops during periods of online education then they must accept surge pricing on a termly and annual basis too if their schools become oversubscribed. However, it is likely that parents will have budgeted in their mind for paying roughly the same fees every year for 7 years and as such any surge will likely price a significant number of them out of one school and force them to withdraw their child mid-way through their education. This would create huge instability in our community when we know that a safe secure and stable environment is what our children need to thrive when growing up.

Emergencies “fast-forward historical processes”, says the historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari. “Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours.” Our decisions over the course of the coming weeks and months will determine what schools in Dubai look like tomorrow. Choices made or rushed through now may alter the shape of our education landscape for decades to come. Applying dynamic pricing to school fees should not be a choice we make.

The decision making behind the reopening of schools

Let’s be honest, the ultimate decision to reopen schools will come from education’s position within the economic pecking order.

Be under no illusion that every decision behind any new airport, bridge, speed limit, or drug is made on the basis of the weighing up the cost to the economy versus the risk to life. In the UK this week, scientists have warned ministers that they face the tough choice between keeping teenagers at home or shutting down other sectors of the economy to allow them to return to education. Pubs have been mentioned as an example of what might have to close.

As in the UAE, there is hope in the UK of a full return to school by September if people interpret social-distancing advice very strictly. However, “even a modest increase in people’s leisure contacts would mean a choice between shutting pubs or keeping secondary schools open” wrote The Times this weekend. What a choice! If we prioritise our summer holidays to which we have become so accustomed (some may say, to which people feel entitled) then teachers, parents and students need to recognise that their salaries and children’s futures may be required as the collateral to pay for them.

While a hashtag always has the potential to diminish the seriousness of a cause, we are all indeed responsible right now and questions need to be asked as to how prepared we are to contribute towards the solution. In the context of UAE residents we all need to ask ourselves what we value more. Our desire for F&B and accommodation whether in Dubai or overseas this summer or the reopening of schools?

Ultimately we have a collective decision to make.


Michael Lambert is Headmaster of Dubai College.

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