The world is facing an unprecedented challenge, brought about by the rapid spread of Covid-19. The impact is being felt in all aspects of life and our schools are being asked to perform an important national service in remaining open for vulnerable children and those of key workers.
In advance of national arrangements being put in place for those eligible for free school meals, schools are also doing what they can to ensure needy families don’t go hungry. Their immediate tasks are around meeting the most basic of human needs – for food, shelter and care.
Although educating children and young people is rightly second order for now, schools are also doing what they can to provide remote learning for their pupils, and support for those who should have been completing public assessments at key stages 2, 4 and 5 this summer.
Where they engage with it (which not all can or will), remote learning will provide some sense of normality for the children and young people coming to terms with a situation they may find confusing, frightening and overwhelming.
In the early stages at least, remote learning (mostly work being shared via physical or digital materials for pupils to complete alone) is unlikely to enable pupils to do more than consolidate existing learning. Over time, it is possible that more sophisticated virtual teaching, which enables teachers and students to interact, could allow the teaching of new content, but few schools are likely to have effective systems for this in the short term. Establishing these will require schools to get the right hardware and software in place, and intensive training for teachers (and learners) about how to educate in what, for most, will be a completely new way.
As and when schools reopen, the challenge will shift to re-establishing the relationships and routines that underpin effective schools, and providing pastoral support for a generation of traumatised children and young people. While the lasting mental and emotional consequences of the current crisis are unknown, they probably can’t be underestimated – and we know schools were already struggling to meet the mental health demands of their youngsters in the face of increasing needs and declining social services support.
A second priority will be catch-up provision for the learning missed. The need will be particularly acute for the various groups of already disadvantaged learners because the detrimental impact of their poor “home learning environments” will be strongly magnified during this time. We know the gap was already widening and it will get wider still over the months ahead. Reversing this trend will become more important than ever.
It is as yet unclear when schools will reopen fully or if they will be subject to further interruptions and temporary closures. There are already suggestions that we may face up to a year or more of tighter and looser restrictions to daily life as the spread of the virus is controlled. Schools will need to prepare for providing what support and education they can for their students, potentially using blended approaches over an extended period of time.
While it may not feel like it now, these challenges also present a great opportunity to rethink education (and many other aspects of global life) and to achieve something substantially better than before.
Kate Chhatwal is chief executive of Challenge Partners