James Egan, Founder and CEO of Shaw Academy

As schools re-open, exam results are botched and universities scramble to survive, the fragility and outdatedness of our education infrastructure has become crystal clear.

In just the past week, we've seen two major studies highlight the education attainment gap - firing up the national debate on our approaches and attitudes to education, and leading to political platforming over how to address the gap.

But in the end, it's still the public who lose out. 

However, this is not an issue on which we should take political sides.

Labour's latest demand for government to give a "cast-iron guarantee" no child will be left behind, as a result of COVID-19, is a fundamental misreading of the challenge on two levels:

Cross-generation learning

Firstly, education is not just about early learning. With lockdown periods and a struggling high street still forcing many businesses to close, and some populations around the world still self-isolating indoors, education providers have been in a unique position to provide something that can positively benefit people during this difficult period.

During lockdown, we saw a staggering nine million new students sign up to online courses - but a huge proportion of those were young professionals, or over-50s. Some of these saw learning as a welcome and productive distraction, or a safety net for their job prospects as a tough labour market looms. At Shaw Academy, for example, we’ve seen massive spikes of students interested in areas like leadership, design and digital marketing - all seeing a three-fold increase of sign-ups. An even more extreme example is our Diploma in Social Media Marketing course, with an 1,100% increase in course attendees – underlining how many have seen lockdown as a time to upskill and boost their CV.

Clearly, with unemployment rising and many more thousands likely to lose their jobs in the coming recession, we must make sure that all generations of learners are not left behind. For those who need to re-skill or upskill in order to get back into work, equal access to education is just as important.

For others, it has been the first time in their adult life that they have had the chance to take a step back and ask themselves “what do I really want to do?”; “what am I passionate about?” and “what if I started that business, like I'd always dreamed of?”. In these cases, accessible and affordable learning has been a positive driving force at a time that could otherwise have been devastating.

The attainment challenge

Secondly, we must make it clear: there is no "education gap". It's a chasm, it's growing and it was not created by COVID-19. For decades, education has been unaffordable and inaccessible to huge segments of the global population.

We've been proud to create access to free education for millions of students in the UK and developing regions, as part of Shaw Academy's Get Skills Give Skills programme - but we are still only scratching the surface. The demand for early, higher, and further education at a lower cost has never been greater - and the recent pandemic has only highlighted the existing chasm in a new way.

It's telling that, as IPPR research has shown, teachers don't feel confident about the role of stop-gap policies and funds to help us close the attainment gap in the longer-term. Either way, we must not lose sight of what will truly move the needle: deploying new education technology infrastructure, with speed and at scale, to deliver education at lower cost to more of the population. The tools are there, if we're willing to invest and embrace what could be an 'EdTech boom'.

It's time for us to graduate from hyperbole and hysteria to reasoned, rounded thinking, on education. We owe it to ourselves, our children and our future generations.

James Egan, Founder and CEO of Shaw Academy

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