Two harsh realities schools, and government, must face

Planning for the 'new normal' must acknowledge two tough truths: that the curriculum will be irrelevant, and the attainment gap will be even wider

Bernard Trafford

How will education change in the 2020s? We'll see a curriculum shift towards 'powerful knowledge', says Mark Enser

The current coronavirus buzzwords have moved from “unprecedented times” to planning for the “new normal” – whenever that may be.   

But what of the present “normal”?

Tes’ recent survey found that 86 per cent of schools kept their doors open for some pupils last week, while busting a gut to maintain teaching for all in one form or another.

Many are teaching face-to-face online, digitally replicating traditional classrooms. Sixty-nine per cent of schools claim they’re remotely teaching more than three hours a day.

This didn’t satisfy Tony Blair’s former schools minister: Lord Adonis infuriated teachers by snitching to Ofsted, denouncing “poor practice” where state schools were not providing a “full teaching programme”.

Yeah, right. Schools had all of a couple of days to completely redesign the nature of teaching.

They’re attempting the impossible, and deserve praise, not brickbats. Back in March, secretary of state Gavin Williamson himself admitted that keeping schools open was “largely about providing safe spaces” and that “they’re not going to be teaching the national curriculum”.

However, since lockdown, many for whom continuing attendance was planned – children identified as vulnerable – are not turning up. It’s hardly surprising.

When it comes to virtual classrooms, even the most highly organised, best-resourced schools, whose staff are teaching their digital socks off, can’t ensure 100 per cent attendance.

Some reluctant teenagers require a parent to drag them out of bed and get them logged on: note the sweeping assumption made there.

To misquote Star Trek: “It’s schooling, Jim, but not as we know it.”

Now, as another new normal is set to take shape in schools, two harsh realities must be confronted.

1. Forget the curriculum

I’m not reigniting the knowledge-rich vs skills-based debate but, seriously, it’s not the important thing right now.

The curriculum is too easily characterised as a huge, unstoppable juggernaut slowly lumbering past, onto which children must clamber aboard – or be left behind.

The reality is different. The curriculum doesn’t exist physically. It’s just a concept, a plan of things that government (too often) and schools (when they’re allowed) reckon they’d like children to learn, experience and do at particular ages and phases.

If, in this crisis, kids with supportive homes and a measure of cultural capital behind them miss out on a term or two of that fairly arbitrary content, they’ll still survive and thrive – as many do if serious illness forces them to miss a period of schooling.

Since GCSE and A-level candidates have lost time on syllabus (sorry, specification) coverage, Ofqual and exam boards should agree to slim down content for 2021. They can do that without compromising standards.

Candidates can still demonstrate subject knowledge and competence, just with a bit less “stuff” learned. Sats, too.

2. Mind the gap

Did you spot my omission? Of course you did. You’re already shouting at your screen: “What about the children who lack significant support and cultural capital at home?”

For many well-documented reasons, disadvantaged children are less likely to be benefiting from remote teaching.

While the fortunate kids I described above will tick over even if they do little more than learn their times tables and read at home, their less-favoured peers are missing out on the acquisition of necessary learning and skills.

As the Sutton Trust keeps warning, the gap’s real, and growing. This is the single greatest challenge facing schools. While lockdown continues, the hardest to reach will remain the hardest, for all the technology that works so well with those readily in touch.

When we finally return to the “antediluvian, archaic, 19th-century” model of having all pupils in school together (I’ve probably used all those adjectives in the past), most teachers and students will rightly sigh in relief: its absence has demonstrated its worth.

But the breadth of the disadvantage gap will be revealed as both glaring and alarming.

Former HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw proposes pulling these children into school at weekends and through holidays. To me, that sounds divisive and potentially demotivating.

Yet a solution must be found. This is an educational emergency.

All planning for education’s “new normal” at both national and institutional levels must position the gap at its very heart.

 

Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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