Dear madam: letters to the editor 15/5/20

In this week's postbag of letters to the editor, Tes readers discuss exam pressure and pastoral care in lockdown
15th May 2020, 11:24am


Dear madam: letters to the editor 15/5/20
Tes Letters To The Editor

Coronavirus shows us where education has gone wrong

I was angered this week when a social commentator stated that children were being deprived of their education while in lockdown. Like many teachers, I am finding remote teaching really difficult because I know I can't reach the pupils who need education the most. Yet, if I am brutally honest, I never reached those children. This admission may seem stark, but it is true.

I've been teaching for 21 years and the Covid-19 pandemic has taught me what I probably knew about five years ago. We, as a profession, are going and have been going in the wrong direction for the vast majority of our young learners. The youth of today, and those younger, are coping brilliantly with the current situation (even if parents are not). They are building resilience, bouncebackability, a new skill set and a creative, adventurous approach to learning that reflects life but not Sats or GCSE exams.

Sure, I know, that maybe the top 35 per cent of our pupils need the carrot of qualifications and have ambitions to "ace" the test and challenge themselves further in the world of academia. But what about those who, while at school, are just surviving day by day? Well, these pupils, who are among the lower middle groups and lower groups,are thriving in lockdown.

First, the pressure to pass, keep up, reach a target, has gone momentarily. They are enjoying this different investigative approach. Sure, they are getting stressed by the emails of expectation, the Google Classroom dates and Microsoft Teams, but they are doing work and are not sitting for hours 190-odd days a year. They are doing work that works for them. They are not doing work that I think they need to do to push up the schools co-efficient or Progress 8. They are doing work that benefits them. They are using and developing skills that will stand them in good stead for their future. They don't need to know how an author uses pathetic fallacy or foreboding to set up an unsuspecting Year 10 reader, they do not need simultaneous equations. They need to develop life skills, meaningful knowledge and that is what this pandemic has shown and is doing for them.

For me, as a teacher, school leaders have to move on this and not be dictated to by the powers that be. We are living without tests and relying on teachers and their assessment. We are living without a rigid curriculum that has been tailored to squeeze every last ounce of a mark out of our young people just to appease those in power. We now need to develop a wholesome, broad and appealing curriculum that fits with all our pupils, one that caters for their mental requirements, their specific needs as a learner and, most importantly, life in the real world. Our motto should be: if it doesn't benefit the children, then don't do it.

We need a curriculum that embeds key life skills, mental health and the traditional curriculum. Cut some of the content and focus on topics and themes that benefit all pupils. Let us look at exams through a microscope and decide if we need an all-encompassing, high-pressure, end-of-year test. Surely, now is the time to take the pressure off and cut exams back to something manageable for teachers and, most importantly, all the pupils.

Children are not being robbed or deprived of their education; they have been given a unique opportunity, and one that we, as teachers, shouldn't let pass them by. When these youngsters can safely walk back into our classroom, we should be ready with a new approach, we should be ready to put them fully at the centre of what we do and we should not go back to our ways that only benefit the top echelons of our school pupils.

Name and address supplied

What keeps me awake? The thought of missing the chance to support a vulnerable student

The world we live and work in today is vastly different from the one we had only a few short weeks ago. At the start of 2020, my biggest headaches involved teenagers in a boarding environment doing what they do best - pushing boundaries and trying to bypass school rules. A few individuals, in particular, spent too much time in my office. I eventually told colleagues that I wanted "one day without a disciplinary issue to deal with - just one!" I got my wish.  Now I would give (almost) anything to have them back. 

The joint responsibilities of pastoral care and discipline seem to be contradictory to those not in education. I am often asked by parents, and my family and friends outside of education, variations of, "How can you be the person a vulnerable student turns to when you are also the person issuing sanctions when they get things wrong?" My answer has always been: "Easily."  

In fact, those children who end up in my office for disciplinary issues are frequently those who need the extra pastoral care - with the disciplinary event being the necessary gateway trigger to open up a meaningful dialogue. The students in my care also know that I have expectations of them and that I will not excuse their poor behaviour, but I will acknowledge and deal with the reasons for it.  It is said that children act out most where they feel safe and loved; for many, that is at home and for some that is at school. I try to remind myself of this when dealing with my "naughty children". Is this their way of confirming that they are safe, secure and have someone who cares about their welfare and wellbeing?

Teenagers are programmed to be risk-takers and to push boundaries - it is hardwired into their brains at this age - and everything they get wrong becomes a learning and growth experience. I have seen thousands of teens during my decades of teaching experience, and have learned as much from them as they have from me, and it is only in the past few weeks that I have really worried about the way I approach my interactions with them.

Gone are the quick conversations and check-ins that take place as we pass in corridors. 

Gone are a multitude of "can I take your dog for a walk?" requests (Henry is far more popular than I am) that lead to "how are you?" chats with students.

Gone are the small moments of personal engagement each and every day that allow me, and my colleagues, to know when a child, or a colleague for that matter, is having a bad day.

Instead we have online Teams/Zoom meetings, telephone calls, emails and YouTube lessons. We prepare for, and even script, each encounter, putting on a clean shirt and combing our hair, hiding the fact that we haven't showered or brushed our teeth in three days and are still wearing pyjama trousers. We smile for the camera. We put on a front. We hold it all together for the duration of the lesson/meeting, then revert to our new normal hibernation and box-set binge. We do all this, and no one notices. The opportunities to spot that a student is struggling are drastically diminished. We rely on them telling us when something is wrong, and we know from experience that many will not do so. We have identified our vulnerable students, put in place targeted support and additional care for them, and maintained those relationships.  My worry is the unknown.

Who are we not seeing during this time of crisis? 

Who is struggling and not coming to our attention as they are still engaging with online lessons? 

What are they not telling us?

Who has slipped through the net and is now at risk?

This is what keeps me awake at night. This is what makes me want a (safe) return to schools as soon as possible. This is what makes me want to deal with teenage disciplinary issues every day for a month, if it means identifying that one child in need.  Until then we have to embrace the new normal and strive to be there for all the children who need us. To continue to be the safety net in a time of crisis. To do everything we can. 

To care.

Kate Tipton
Vice-principal pastoral, Welbeck - The Defence Sixth Form College, Loughborough

Cut content for next year's GCSEs

It would be most useful if all examination boards were to join forces to publish "one-off" revised syllabi for the cohort 2020-2021 from September. We will have lost at least three months of traditional teaching, learning, assessment and revision before coming back to regular practice and resuming interactions with students.

Current Year 10 and Year 12 students face multiple challenges, including deeper understanding, retention and retrieval of topics from online schooling. There is no doubt that teachers will need to (re)teach and assess many topics from the coronavirus period during the next school year. This will collide with the amount of new topics we need to teach, as planned in our schemes of work. If specification requirements are not reduced where necessary, schemes of work will be unmanageable. As a result, teachers would need to rush to cover compulsory content superficially and students will not feel secure about subject topics. No one can benefit from this.

Steps need to be taken towards temporarily revised specification requirements for GCSE and/or A levels, so that content burden and amount of taught elements are reduced. This will allow the educational process to become more manageable and appropriately delivered to required standards. If content reduction does not occur, staff and students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, may not be able to cope well. Exam preparations for summer 2021 could be compromised and become an extremely stressful administrative exercise for entire learning communities. Unrevised specifications could cause undesirable domino effects across different contexts. 

In terms of A levels, one proposition could be to reduce or remove some sections (optional topics) from Paper 3 in all subjects, so that gained time could be used to address topics and skills from the coronavirus period. This could be complemented by commencement of public exams one month later, where possible. For example, in A-level psychology, this would mean reducing Paper 3 by one optional topic, from 96 marks to 72 marks. In A-level sociology, by analogy, reduction would be from 80 marks to 60 marks. As such, Paper 3 would be sat for 90 minutes instead of 120 minutes. Similarly, proportional adjustments could be made to other subjects. Removing one optional topic and reducing the scope of Paper 3 seems the easiest way to make the burden of the next school year bearable and subject content more optimal for the reality we live in.

The proposed change would not decrease relative academic rigour, which now needs to be more contextualised, recalibrated towards student wellbeing and dealing with the effects of long-term social isolation and physical distancing. Reduced specification will certainly help learning communities cope better with the consequences of the unprecedented circumstances we are facing. In other words, minor removal of optional content and shorter exam paper swill be extremely helpful to us all, unless more radical changes are already contemplated by exam boards.

Marko Jokovic
Head of social sciences and teaching and learning coordinator in KS5, Kingsmead School


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