There’s nothing as practical as a good theory, according to the psychologist Kurt Lewin.
We would do well to remember this, as talk within and beyond schools increasingly turns towards the notion of catch-up in its many guises.
I’m going to sidestep debates about the term "catch-up" itself. Others have already spoken in compelling terms about the problematic nature of the notion.
Is this broad-brush term helpful? Does it foster a deficit mindset to the detriment of the mental health of young people? Does it mistakenly assume that all pupils have lost parts of the curriculum, when, in fact, some children have continued through the curriculum as normal?
Does it imply a focus on academic knowledge at the expense of social aspects of school that have been lost? All of these are being debated elsewhere.
Covid catch-up: Evidence-based approaches
There is more consensus, I think, that whatever schools do in response to Covid-19, it ought to be based on the best available evidence. The government’s decision to appoint former Education Endowment Foundation chief executive Sir Kevan Collins as education recovery commissioner speaks to this. We should go to where the evidence points. Quite right.
But there is something missing in the conversation so far, I think. How does the school system operationalise all this? That is to say, we should not only theorise what works, we also need to theorise how it will be enacted where it is required.
The good news is that in the concept of families of schools, such as school trusts and federations, we already have the theory we need, and it’s proven to be very practical indeed.
There are many advantages of schools working in strong, sustainable groups. Too often, however, the focus is on the back-office advantages of these structures, the financial efficiencies and so on, overlooking what they are perhaps most effective at: knowledge-building.
Large teams of teachers from a variety of school contexts debating the curriculum at subject level. Groups of school leaders sharing insights into social issues in their communities. Executive leaders drawing expertise from one school to support another. All of these things were commonplace in trusts before Covid-19 and they will be essential on the road ahead.
A family affair
The beneficial impact of strong families of schools has already been felt during the pandemic. It’s hard to conceive of Oak National Academy being possible without the specialised knowledge and curriculum expertise found in the school trusts that helped to get it up and running.
Let’s not forget that many of the country’s most successful school trusts are working in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage, often where the impact of Covid-19 has been felt the most.
These groups of schools haven’t been waiting for government announcements about catch-up or a big reveal of centralised intervention. They’ve already started taking practical steps, drawing on and deploying the knowledge they hold about how best to teach children and how to support families.
It is here, within these crucibles of education knowledge, rather than the lair of the policy wonk, that you’ll find the meaningful debates about extending the school day, summer clubs and so on are taking place.
These conversations are not being held in the abstract, they are being had in relation to particular children, communities and schools. This is exactly what is required: pooled professional knowledge, based on evidence, being put to work on specific problems.
Of course, none of this is the exclusive territory of multi-academy trusts, but trusts are at home in this territory because they are designed to facilitate the building of professional knowledge through collaboration.
This collaborative mission is attracting more and more schools to form strong, mutually accountable families, underpinned by clear and effective governance, for the benefit of their pupils. For many schools and leaders, it is about the positive choice to come together in deep and purposeful collaboration.
So, to return to the catch-up agenda, I suspect we already know what will make the biggest difference to those children who have lost out due to Covid-19: the best possible teaching and support over the long term.
In school trusts, we have the practical theory to deliver exactly that. That should give us reason for optimism.
Steve Rollett is deputy chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts