The closing of schools to the majority of children has given us pause for thought. We can't go back to doing things the same way, argues Karen Parkin
When schools closed their doors to most children at the end of March, school leaders and staff were quick to adapt to making alternative arrangements for their pupils.
In the absence of any coherent government guidance, full credit must go to those educators who by the following Monday morning had established emergency plans for continuing a teaching and learning dialogue between homes and schools in an effort to ensure that no child would miss out.
Additionally, it was the turn of parents and carers to bring out their inner teacher and convert dining tables and kitchens into makeshift classrooms and any available outdoor space into mini PE areas. Children who couldn’t access yards or gardens had the effervescent Joe Wicks to help them burn off some excess energy.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the picture for all children and families and those who did manage to establish a timetable of sorts for at-home lessons soon discovered that distance learning is no replacement for the myriad opportunities that school settings offer.
Many schools have reported a low uptake of online learning, unsurprising as many thousands of children in the UK currently live in homes without internet access. (Free Broadband for all, anyone…?)
Of those homes that do have access many are ‘device poor’ and do not have the tablets or laptops to support the online learning of two or more children simultaneously, as well as any adults attempting to work from home.
Instead, many families took to a blended approach of formal teaching, play and child-led learning activities that worked for them and was facilitated by a wealth of resources, both online and paper, which have been provided free of charge by schools and a range of other outlets during lockdown.
Following the announcement that there would be no formal testing for pupils this summer, educators and families could heave a sigh of relief and focus more on the emotional needs of their children rather than the revision sessions, the booster groups and the practice papers that usually dominate school spring calendars in the UK.
In the absence of thirty, sixty or more books to mark each night, teachers were now delivering distance learning and then making phone calls to families to check on their welfare and see how they were coping with the ‘new normal’.
The default position became one of nurture, support and practical help; thousands of emergency food parcels were delivered by school staff to homes during the lock-down. As millions took to displaying rainbows on windows as symbols of hope and standing on doorsteps applauding care workers there was a refreshing sense of community in the air.
Of course, schools have always played a vital role in attending to the pastoral needs of children and families. Not least since 2010 when drastic austerity measures were introduced by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition government. During the following years the impact on families was severe, as detailed in UNICEF’s 2017 report ‘Children of Austerity’:
“Households with children were some of the main victims of austerity…
The Coalition government had promised fairness in its deficit-reduction strategy, but low-income families with children were hit hard.”
This headline from The Telegraph in April 2018 – “Teachers are having to wash children's clothes and lend their parents money” – is testament to the situation many schools found themselves in.
It is against this backdrop of swingeing spending cuts that COVID 19 spread across the globe in a pandemic not seen since the devastating and deadly flu virus of 1918.
As we begin a wider re-opening of schools, educators, parents and children are wondering what education will be like in our new, sanitised and socially distanced world. We’re beginning to see how schools will appear: sparser, definitely; austere and unwelcoming, possibly.
The single desks with spaces in between for even the youngest children are reminiscent of Victorian Sunday schools. Resources will be limited, playthings restricted and all soft furnishings removed completely. Even books will have to be carefully rationed for fear of contamination.
But what schools will be depends largely on the people in them. The pandemic has given pause for thought. Schools have been forced to step back and we shouldn’t rush or be pushed into trying to return to things as they were.
As educators and parents we need to decide what we want our children to return to. We need to examine what it is about education that we most value. What does it mean to leave a child ‘behind’? Behind what or whom? Since all children learn at their own pace then they will inevitably need to readjust at their own pace too. Should passing tests and exams really be the ultimate goal of education? It has seemed that way for years.
These things are important of course, but is too much of a ‘one size fits all' approach. One size doesn’t fit all. It never did. Isn’t it time we were able to not only acknowledge children’s mental health needs, for example, but prioritise them?
For too long the supposedly ‘broad and balanced’ National Curriculum has been slowly shrinking to accommodate an education methodology driven by data, results and league tables. In this context, you may have already heard of another ‘GERM’ infecting schools around the world: the Global Education Reform Movement.
Numeracy and literacy are essential skills of course, but have been given undue emphasis at the expense of the arts, sciences, humanities and sports, despite it being well documented that these foundation subjects play a vital role in developing children’s interests, minds and bodies. It’s an unhealthy trend and we should not pursue it any longer.
This pause is as golden opportunity to reassess what should be ‘non-negotiable’ about education. Tests for four year olds, phonics screening, SATs and GCSEs are all up for scrutiny and must be reassessed. There are lessons to be learned. Will we be able to emerge from this crisis renewed and re-invigorated with a state education system that is fit for purpose for all its people?
The National Education Union has been at the forefront of the campaign for a return to schools only when it is safe. Last week the NEU forced the Government to finally accept that expecting all primary school pupils to return to school for a month before the summer break was simply not safe.
On 11th June the NEU published an open letter to the prime minister outlining its proposals for a ten-point National Education Recovery Plan, beginning over the summer holidays and addressing the needs of all children and young people with a particular focus on children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Additionally, the NEU has produced further guidance for educators on a way forward in the summer term. It is based on five key principles and for use whether children are learning at home or at school and comprises ‘Five Cs’ that could help to shape the teaching and learning in the immediate aftermath of the return and hopefully beyond.
The following, in italics, is taken directly from the NEU guidance, with permission:
Focus on Caring
Caring about the wellbeing of pupils, families and staff needs to be the primary focus. Schools and colleges are social institutions which play a role at the heart of their community. The Government has highlighted particular groups of children as ‘vulnerable’, but many children may face abuse, isolation, friendship troubles, poor mental health, hunger, bullying and exploitation during this unusual term.
Focus on the Context for learning
This is not education as normal. We believe schools’ goal during this time must be to keep students connected to a range of learning, by making sure that learning is relevant and based on students’ experience. Evidence from education in emergency zones shows starting from students’ individual needs and experiences is what works. We are asking the Department for Education (DfE) to create a transitional phase, which could remain in place for longer than anticipated. In this period, learning must be realistic, taking into account that teachers have children at home with them and many parent/carers are working, not ‘home-schooling’ their children.
Focus on a Creative curriculum
Using the summer term to let pupils create, make and perform projects that interest them can provide opportunities for students to express their feelings and emotions, spark their imagination, develop independence, maintain motivation and build resilience in the face of uncertainty.
Focus on Connecting
Creating drawings, lists, plans or homemade postcards can connect children to neighbours, relatives or friends and keep that connection. Include a Covid Time Capsule to help students creatively chart their experiences.
Focus on building and celebrating your Community
….Research shows that it will really help students to develop resilience if they feel that they are making a positive difference, are trusted and viewed as responsible - whether that is helping in their home, helping with younger siblings, or helping people in their street/estate/area. Make sure your school validates this use of time and this contribution or informal care which students might be making within their home, or in the community around them. Activities such as putting up posters in the window, or making care packages for neighbours, have benefits for both learning and wellbeing and should be celebrated and validated.
The ten-point plan and the ‘Five Cs’ advocate child and family-centred approaches and start with where the children are. We cannot, must not, ignore the national trauma of the last few months. We will need to face it before we can possibly move on. Children - and adults - will need to process their experiences and will need time to adjust.
Many children will have gone through bereavement; all children will have gone through some form of loss. There must be no return to ‘business as usual’ and only when we have addressed that loss can we hope to rebuild. We need not return to the ‘exam factory’ conditions that previously determined the school experiences of our children. Just as the forest rejuvenates after the drama and destruction of a wildfire, so must we nurture the shoots of recovery. How we shape that renewal is up to us.
Karen Parkin is Wigan district secretary in the National Education Union and a member of the union's national executive
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