Let's reset our priorities for education
I am a primary school teacher. I work in a deprived area of a city in the Midlands and, four weeks ago, as I watched the last of the children leave school for the coronavirus closures, my heart sank with a feeling of failure to equip these children with the skills they were going to need. How was an understanding of parenthesis or knowing how to calculate the perimeter of a shape going to help these children through potentially quite upsetting and emotionally challenging home situations for the foreseeable future? Simply, it wasn’t.
Over the past month, a number of writers have considered the education question in the crisis. And Geoff Barton, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, has suggested the need for a “national renewal” and a “fresh start”.
I agree. This is a perfect time for us, as educational professionals, parents and a nation, to look at how we are educating, why we are educating and decide how we change and develop for the future.
One of my good friends, a mother of two, whose eldest is in his first year of secondary school, lamented on the phone the other day about the amount of work her child has to cover at home. She is a nurse and is happy to look at science but complained to me she knew nothing about "Bloody Mary" and could not help with the history. She suggested she could look at the history of pandemics instead.
This makes perfect sense: to draw upon those skills and interests of parents and carers and to look at this unprecedented time as a primary witness. I am sure there are schools adapting to encompass the present situation, but not many. Most children are ploughing on with the ancient Romans or long-shore drift for their home learning.
Part of the problem with this is our persistent compartmentalisation of the curriculum. For children to understand coronavirus they would need history, science, geography, maths, English and citizenship elements. The virus is a clear example of how our world is an entanglement, how we are all inextricably linked together.
I have struggled with the idea that maths and English are our “core” subjects and all other ways and areas of learning are pushed into afternoon sessions, for when the serious job of preparing for Sats is over. These days of lockdown are showing that it is the art, the music, the dance, the outside learning on the treasured one walk a day and the citizenship and knowledge of other people in other countries experiencing similar things that is enabling children to communicate with others, to express their feelings in confinement and to develop coping mechanisms. No one is sharing their knowledge of fronted adverbials.
Our job, as educators, comes with the humbling realisation that we do not know what future we are preparing our children for. We need our future generations to be resilient, resourceful, able to think of creative solutions to problems they might face but also to be compassionate and kind, to work together and to have methods to understand and feed their own state of wellbeing.
The English curriculum, and therefore many schools across the country, is too focused on league tables and test results to enable this education to happen. I am not belittling the importance of reading, writing and basic numeracy. I am asking that we look at how the arts, global understanding and health and wellbeing are the fundamental subjects of this time at home and that we adjust our learning in schools to reflect this real need.
In the world’s most highly esteemed education system, Finland, success is based on pupils' wellbeing and development. Teachers and teaching assistants are well paid and respected. They have pedagogical autonomy, and multidisciplinary modules encourage knowledge, understanding and dialogue between subjects.
Transdisciplinary curricula, such as the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme, have been shown to yield children more capable in maths, reading and both narrative and expository writing than national alternatives across Asia, Europe, the Americas, Oceania and Africa. This is as well as promoting elements beyond the academic in the pupil profile such as risk-taking, communication and reflection. These models and systems are already out in the world and working. The UK needs to step up and regain some footing in providing a world-class education.
We need to make sure this rhetoric of a “fresh start” goes beyond newspaper opinion pages and translates into physical change in our classrooms. The Sats have been scrapped this summer – let’s not bring them back at all. Let’s reassess what assessment is for. Let’s free Year 5 and Year 6 children to become independent, exploratory learners rather than teachers feeling they have to teach to the test. Let’s make wellbeing a “core” subject, at the centre of everything we do in schools and the key conversation for Ofsted to be having when they visit.
Finally, let’s celebrate creativity in all its forms, value the arts as they should be valued and foster a sense of understanding of the world around us. In this way, coronavirus will not just be remembered as a time of anxiety and uncertainty, but as a time where we talked about change; a time that, as Patrick Roach, the new NASUWT general secretary, stated, “could be an opportunity to construct a new reality, a new normal in relation to what schools look like and how they operate and why they exist”.
Primary teacher, Uttoxeter, Staffs
The chance to change our academic year
I, too, have been in education for around 40 years and wholeheartedly agree with letter writer Richard Jones that resetting the academic year to January to December would bring about a change that many have been dreaming about for many years.
Where I would change things would be for the current Year 10s and 12s. I would organise their academic year to be extended from September 2020 to December 2021. All year groups would then move up one year in January 2022 thereafter.
The extra time spent next year will allow for the academic catch-up needed post-coronavirus lockdown so students aren’t particularly disadvantaged before sitting their exams in November 2021.
I am wondering, during this time of national crisis, what our colleagues at Ofsted are doing with their time.
As well-paid public servants and experts in their fields, could they, for example, not be providing online teacher training or support with grade setting or remote proctoring. There must a million and one things that they could be doing to support schools and/or pupils at this time.
I may have missed this but our school has had no offers of support and I have seen no proactive outreach from them.
Ofsted, where are you? And how can you help?
School governor, Birmingham