April 6, 2020

British schools have now followed the path of their counterparts in the EU by shutting down. There is no more school until who know’s when, the latest chapter in the grim story of an economy rapidly grinding to a standstill. In the dark hours of the night I find myself wondering if the economic fall-out from this will do more damage to lives than this disease itself, if far greater harm comes from the alarm.

Many, especially small businesses and easy-to-sacrifice freelancers, will be asking themselves how on earth they are going to get through the next few months. No income coming in, rent and other outgoings to pay, the value of any investments decimated. How long are we going to be locked down for? Anything less than three months will seem like a win at this stage.

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It might not feel like the right time and place to be offering silver linings to these economic thunder clouds, but I get the feeling that this crisis is going to lead to huge — and welcome — changes in the way we do things. When Covid-19 has passed, the world may well be a very different place. 

Remote working — already on the rise pre-coronavirus — is going to surge. So will remote healthcare, and believe it or not such a thing already exists in the form of apps such as Babylon. Similarly, as schools shut down, we are going to see a rise in remote education and home schooling. 

My hunch is that in all three cases people are going to discover that they’re actually pretty good, and by the time the crisis has passed, remote work, healthcare and education will be a much more established part of our lives. This disease is going to change the way we operate.

I’m an advocate of all remoting, if such a word exists. I’ve been a freelancer and worked from home all my life. I like the freedom and the flexibility. I don’t like commuting or office politics. I’m relatively new to the remote healthcare game but I now conduct as much of my family’s healthcare as possible this way; I had a consultation with a GP just the other day on the NHS via Babylon.

As for education, I discovered for myself by accident last year that there are other ways to educate a child other than traditional schools. I should add here, though, that while my story might help those with kids at home, there are many circumstances that are quite different from my story of last year, chief among them the financial threat to many of our livelihoods. But I still think it’s worth recounting our experience of remote studying.

My son, Samuel, was always pretty good at maths. He chose maths as one of his A-levels and his school duly put him in the top set. But within a few months this A* student was regularly scoring Es and Us. 

I had grave doubts about the competence of the school maths department, so I decided to get a second opinion. I found a website for tutors called tutorhunt.com, and picked a cheap one in my area with good feedback. A smartly dressed 19-year-old turned up at our house the following day, a lad in his first year at King’s, studying maths, and funding his studies by tutoring. “Yeah. He picks it up quickly,” the teenager said casually, after a couple of lessons. “He’ll get an A.”

But in his end-of-year exams Samuel got a D. To continue with the course, he would have to get a C, the maths department said, but he could re-sit in August. I watched how hard Samuel then worked over that summer — to get an E and be told he had to drop maths.

“Don’t make me go back to that school, Dad,” Samuel said. 

I agreed with him. But there were just three days before the beginning of term and I didn’t know how to go about finding another school at such short notice.

So I logged back on to tutorhunt.com, and found him three tutors: one for each subject. And withdrew him from school. The tutors were all students and sometimes he met them at university (which was quite exciting for him), sometimes they came to our house. And he had countless lessons via Skype, Zoom and Google Hangouts. Much as many kids are doing now. 

Samuel became more organised, more motivated, more interested in his subjects. He put in more time on his homework. His essays improved, his presentation improved, even his handwriting improved. The fact that he had agitated to leave the school meant he felt a greater sense of responsibility to make it work. We had flexibility and I, too, became much more involved in his education. In almost every way, the experience was so much better than school. 

And in each subject he got at least a grade better than he would have achieved at school.  It’s hard to describe how I felt when Bristol accepted his place. It wasn’t just that he had got in, but the way it had happened.

Many parents are suddenly finding themselves in a similar situation — though not through choice. At first it will seem like there is no respite. But gradually things will settle down, and I bet many families actually bond as a result of the experience. I was a single parent with two kids living with me, working freelance from home while organising an education. It is a lot of work, but it is do-able.

The loss of the social aspect of school is a problem. In our case, Samuel already had a network of friends either from school or from around where we live, so he was fine. But in the lock-down situation we appear to be going into, even friendships, it seems, are going to have to be conducted remotely. 

But I would try to draw positives even from that. I have three or four extremely close friends, made online, to whom I speak regularly, but I’ve never actually met them. One is in New Zealand, another in Australia. We might not even like each other if we met in person.

In a way we are lucky this virus is hitting now at a time when we have, in the internet, the most fantastic learning and communication device ever invented. On the one hand it has enabled us to get informed about Covid-19 much quicker than at any time in history, and thus better prepare and mitigate. On the other it offers the solution to many of our predicaments — whether work, health or school related.

Online universities were already starting to make their physical counterparts look expensive and anachronistic. Many schools in their current form, whether state or private, look like an extremely expensive and in some cases inefficient way of providing education. There are expensive buildings to maintain, high staff and regulatory costs, and burdensome bureaucracy. The education budget is around £90bn with roughly 10 million students in primary or secondary education. It’s a lot of money.

The internet, on the other hand, is mostly free. There is a seemingly endless supply of educational videos (they are already, I gather, the most watched category of video on YouTube). Embrace the internet and the many technological solutions it offers. 

As the circumstances of coronavirus force people to adapt their lives, we are going to see a huge rise in remote work, healthcare and education. It was always going to happen, Covid-19 will accelerate the adoption. It’s a good thing because the result will be better work, better healthcare and better education.

Dominic Frisby’s Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future is published by Portfolio Penguin.