Jon Severs

In a sea of uncertainty, school staff remain calm

Teachers have shown they have learned from the challenges of the pandemic – unlike the government, writes Jon Severs

Coronavirus and schools: Teachers have continually adapted amid the chaos of the pandemic, writes Jon Severs

The human brain is a predictive engine – it is great at taking a “best guess” on what might happen next. This is what makes us so efficient. And if a scenario fails to play out as expected, well, that’s how we learn – we update our mental model in the hope of a better guess next time.

At least that’s the theory. The past 10 months have shown that much can go wrong and yet, seemingly, nothing is learned from those mistakes – in certain quarters at least. 

Back in March, the chaos of an emerging pandemic meant wrong moves by government were to be expected: there was little data and a lot of urgency, and the two formed a disastrous partnership. Unfortunately, teachers were among those who bore the brunt. 

Life in schools became incredibly challenging. Across the summer term, guidance swerved, backtracked and pivoted as the pandemic morphed into new phases. And then the exams debacle happened.

September, though, brought hope. Data had caught up and urgency had receded. The government had experience, now, so the best guess had a better chance of being right.

Coronavirus: Teachers adapting amid the chaos

However, the past few months have been just as chaotic for teachers as they were in the first wave of the pandemic. Whether it was testing, classroom safety, shifts to online learning, collaboration with school leaders or realistic guidance, an error message was still being returned to government by an increasingly frustrated education sector. And yet the same mistakes were still being made. 

That failure was accentuated because the education sector itself was demonstrating, day-in, day-out, that it had learned lessons. The “best guesses” of school staff were turning out to be right more often than wrong, not only when it came to predicting when and where the government would misstep but, more importantly, when it came to navigating the chaos.

It has been humbling to watch as staff write, rewrite, roll out, re-roll out, assess and reassess plans, policies, training, support structures, communications, timetables, staffing rotas and more within hours of the latest guidance dump from the Department for Education.

This week really demonstrated the point. Primary headteachers had been told all weekend that they should remain open to face-to-face teaching yet, come Monday night, they were directed to move to online teaching only for all but vulnerable and key-worker children.

Within hours, headteachers had allocated places for vulnerable and key-worker pupils, teachers had readied resources and plans for remote and face-to-face teaching, parents had been told exactly what was happening and when, and schools were operational as of 8am Tuesday morning. It was remarkable. 

Secondary staff were suddenly faced with exams not going ahead “as normal” but little idea of what that meant in practice, with no use for the testing protocols they had spent Christmas preparing and the prospect of months, rather than the weeks they had planned for, without face-to-face teaching for most pupils. Again, they pivoted, replanned, re-rolled out, and reassessed at startling speed. Again, it was hugely impressive.

And for those in alternative provision and early years? At the time of writing, they were still required to teach face to face. The sector immediately rose up as one to question the decision while simultaneously planning for the new reality they were confronting, ensuring children had a seamless transition from one scenario to the next. It was outstanding.

Perhaps it is no surprise that a profession geared towards learning has shown itself so adept at reacting to change, but it should be applauded all the same. 

The government may have failed to learn lessons but teachers and school leaders continue to demonstrate their refusal to be overwhelmed by the circumstances. We all owe school staff a huge thank you for that.

Jon Severs is the editor of Tes

This article originally appeared in the 8 January issue of Tes

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