'Everyone must calm down and focus on what is possible'

Teachers should not have to deliver full timetables of distance-learning during the coronavirus lockdown, writes the joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. Instead they should be concentrating on caring for one another, and for their students

Mary Bousted of the NEU,which has announced that its conference has been cancelled

We are all having to get used to new ways of working in the time of the coronavirus. Schools are closed for the vast majority of pupils. Those who are still attending school are not being taught by their usual teacher, not learning with their normal classmates. They are not following anything like their previous timetable. Nor are they grouped in their normal classes.

Schools are adapting to the new circumstances we are in and organising their provision in different ways.

Such sense seems, however, to have departed from some schools where there appears to be a belief that we can recreate a normal school experience in every child’s home.

Twitter has exploded with tales of teachers being required to submit a full timetable of lessons. In some cases teachers are being instructed to send out assignments for pupils to complete. In others teachers are being told to send a detailed summary of their day’s distance-teaching in a format they have never been trained in.

Unworkable demands

Schools who are requiring such activities have clearly forgotten some very important things.

They have forgotten that:

Distance-learning activities take far, far longer to prepare because so much that would be covered by teacher exposition in the classroom has to be written down. The workload of producing a distance-learning plan for every lesson would be enormous and undoable. It would be completely unreasonable to expect teachers to do this, and it would be completely unworkable.

Many pupils will have very limited – or no access – to the internet.

Teachers have different levels of expertise when it comes to IT. They cannot transform themselves into experts at online learning, using platforms they are unfamiliar with, without any support and at this particular time, when they are beset by so many other worries and concerns.

Many teachers working from home will themselves be juggling childcare with working.

Pupils have parents – some of whom will be highly anxious that their children do not fall behind, while other parents will be highly nervous that they are not able to support their children’s distance-learning activities.

So it is very important, in this time of crisis, that we are sensible.  We have not got to let the best be the enemy of the good. We have to consider, carefully, what is possible.

We must understand that it is not reasonable to expect that all children will be working remotely for five hours a day. We must understand that teachers simply cannot deliver their normal timetabled lessons remotely.

We must plan for the longer term in a sustainable and manageable way.

NEU guidance

The National Education Union has today issued important guidance for leaders, primary and secondary school teachers, guidance which should underpin how schools approach their communications with parents and with pupils.

The NEU guidance emphasises that teachers working from home can only carry out a reasonable workload and that this should be discussed with them, not imposed upon them.

For pupils, a maximum of two to three hours' work a day is plenty, keeping minds active and enthusiastic. Flexible tasks that cover different areas of the curriculum, allowing pupils to choose those tasks that interest them, will make it more likely that they will complete them.

If this seems blindingly obvious, I can only say that it is not obvious in some schools, which appear to believe that they can carry on as though their pupils were still in school and in lessons when they manifestly are not.

Some of what is driving the unrealistic demands being placed on teachers is a general anxiety about how GCSE and A level and BTEC grades will be determined. Teachers and leaders are understandably anxious that, with the exams cancelled, there is enough evidence to support the awarding of a particular grade. 

Ofqual is working quickly to develop the necessary system. This is what we know so far about their proposals for pupils in England.

For most qualifications, including GCSEs, AS and A levels, teachers will be asked to submit their judgements about the grades that they believe each student would have received if exams had gone ahead. These judgements will take account of, but not be based upon, the grades pupils achieved in their mock exams, but also on a range of wider evidence, including classwork, coursework, controlled assessment and practical pieces.

Ofqual has made it clear that teachers do not need to set new work for their pupils to complete at home for more evidence to support grading. The reasons for this should be clear. Without direct access to teachers, and with very different levels of parental support and learning resources, any work done would be much more a result of pupils’ home circumstances than their ability.

So, if I can make one heartfelt plea to the profession, to school leaders and teachers, it is this: calm down. Soberly assess what is possible and limit yourselves to that.

Taking this sensible, pragmatic approach is not letting anyone down. It is not lowering standards. It is, rather, accepting that we are in a crisis. And in a crisis the best thing we can do is care for one another and care for our pupils.

If we achieve this we will have worked wonders.

Dr Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union

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