From the economy to the return to normality, the whole country is stuck in a wonderland of handouts
Perhaps the class of A-level students who just got their results are the best students ever. If you read the headlines in most news media that is certainly the impression you might take away. As the BBC reported on Tuesday, “Top grades for A-level results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland have reached a record high – with 44.8 per cent getting A* or A grades.” In slightly Pravda-like style the report went on “This second year of replacement results after exams were cancelled, has seen even higher results than last year when 38.5 per cent achieved top grades.” We can expect similar of the GCSE results.
You have to tread carefully here, not least because we risk treading on the sufferings as well as the dreams of a generation of students. There is no doubt that many will have worked exceptionally hard for these results, and deserve the university places that they will go on to.
It is also the case that the last eighteen months has disrupted their education in a fashion which is unprecedented in peace time. Many schools adapted well to the era of lockdowns, doing what they could to keep a semblance of normality in place. But many others (especially in parts of the state sector where class sizes are bigger and resources more stretched) allowed pupils to roam alone and effectively miss months of their education.
Almost a quarter of students were still absent from school at the end of the current school year, victims among much else of the system whereby everybody must isolate if one child in their bubble tests positive for Covid. And of course all this has consequences. A study published in April found that the average primary school pupil was already about two months behind the usual reading skills, and three months behind in maths. Inevitably, better-off parents have been able to buy their children some of the way out of this. Equally inevitably it is poorer children who have suffered the most and will continue to suffer from this disadvantage throughout their lives.
Still the official narrative rolls on. Higher exam scores – and yet higher! The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is among the many politicians touring the airwaves praising all the students who have achieved their record grades. No politician wants to be seen to be dampening the jubilation, or doubting any students’ personal success. They tread in dangerous territory here, mined very comprehensively by parents and teaching unions alike.
But it means that there is a feeling of unreality in the air. After the unprecedented interruption of a generation’s education the greatest scores ever have been achieved. “Hurrah” is the only thing anyone is expected to say. And any sceptical note is portrayed as an attack on students. Who knows, perhaps in time we will have to reflect that if students do this well after spending over a year out of school, what might they not achieve if they never went near a classroom?
Everybody involved seems to be living in a bubble. But if there is a reason why the bubble is not pricked it is not just out of sensitivity to pupils, but because to prick one part of the bubble is to prick it all.
For the same story rolls out in every sector of our national life. The news tells us of economic recovery, and politicians among others continuously talk up every uptick in economic activity. But it could hardly be otherwise. Last year the British economy was effectively shuttered. In one of the most disastrously swift wealth transfers in history, small and medium-sized businesses were made to close their doors while a handful of corrupt, tax-dodging megaliths took up all the remaining opportunity and became bigger still.
Elsewhere, millions of British workers were supported by the largesse of the British taxpayer, thanks to a government forced to take on unprecedented levels of peacetime debt in order to keep the citizenry locked up in our houses. How could the period after that not be an improvement of sorts?
Much less focussed on is the question of how – or if – we are ever going to pay down this debt. Or rein in this unreal era of public spending. There must be tax hikes ahead. Or at least some measure to make up for what has happened in the last year and a half. But wherever you look it is hard to find anyone willing to be honest about the problem or the potential answers. Instead we have only good news stories about projected growth and optimistic forecasts.
Whichever aspect of the “return to normality” that you look to the same story plays out. We are told that people are returning to the office. So much for that. On the day of the alleged big reopening last month very little, if anything, seemed to change. JP Morgan announced that it was going to maintain a 50 per cent occupancy limit at its English offices. Bank of America said they were expecting only a few hundred staff to return. And Deutsche Bank announced that employees could return over the summer on a strictly voluntary basis.
Unsurprisingly the behaviour of the public sector makes the private sector look positively daredevil. Once again this week there was news of ministers trying to coax the civil service back to their offices. Unsurprisingly many civil servants are perfectly happy remaining well paid while working from home. At moments like this it can be enormously advantageous to pull the equivalent of a giant sickie and claim that returning to your soul-sapping government building is just too stressful because of fears of coronavirus.
You may be young, healthy and double-vaccinated, but if you give people the choice many will amazingly not vote for a life back to the old commute and water-cooler thrills of office life. This week’s news suggested that in the near future civil servants might return to work for a stunning two days a week. Meaning that for them the working week is effectively inverted from what it used to be. Now it will be two days in the office, followed by five days in the garden to recuperate.
So don’t blame the students. It isn’t just exams that have entered a fantasy world. They are just some of the prizes being given out by a country stuck in wonderland.
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