We're on the cusp of an extraordinary social experiment

It has been an exceptionally fraught few weeks, says Geoff Barton – but now we need to give our pupils a simple message: welcome home

Geoff Barton

Pair of feet stand on a cliff edge

So, here we are – on the cusp of a momentous week

A year ago, who’d have thought it? Coronavirus was the still-obscure name of a virus we had only recently started to hear about, as it stalked its way across pockets of Asia and into Europe. Social distancing and self-isolation hadn’t yet entered our daily lexicon. Lockdowns were things that happened in plague-ridden medieval cities, or prisons. Platforms – quaintly – were still things we stood on to catch trains or trams. 

And when LP Hartley wrote that “the past is another country: they do things differently there”, we’d nod sagely at images of moustachioed men and big-skirted women peering out at us from photographs from a different era. That, then, was what the past looked like: a world in sepia, partly familiar, but mostly different. They did indeed do things differently there.

But now that past – with crushing nostalgia – has come to mean our world less than a year ago, when all those things we took for granted seem to belong to an alien era, such as sitting on packed buses, having meals out with friends, having meals in with friends, or being a tiny part of a crowd.

So, yes, here we are, poised on the cusp of a momentous week. And, distinctly, what is happening in England is different from the approach to the wider reopening of schools and colleges in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Schools reopening: an extraordinary social experiment

We are part, without doubt, of an extraordinary social experiment, whereby in four weeks’ time we will see whether Westminster’s big-bang approach – on which significant decisions about other sectors in the government’s route map hinge – has paid off. Such is life in the Covid Petri dish.

Given how high the stakes are, stand by this weekend for speculation, scepticism, cynicism and endless punditry on what has happened, what will happen, what won’t happen, what may happen. 

Whether it’s about the shape of the educational reopening, the wearing of face masks, the obsession with catch-up, the dubious quantification of how much learning may or may not have been lost – everyone will have an opinion to air, because ours is an age when everyone has an opinion to air.

But, more quietly and less stridently, I hope, we will hear other voices this weekend – the voices of the children and young people who will, in the main, be longing for a return to their classrooms, their teachers, their routines, their friends.

They will feel anxious, of course. We all feel anxious. But they will also be craving a sense of being back where they belong: in their school, their college, their pupil referral unit, their special school. Next week we’ll hear their voices and their laughter once again.

An exceptionally fraught few weeks

And that won’t have happened by accident. Because, as ASCL’s survey of more than 900 school and college leaders shows us today, the past few weeks – rather like the past few months – have been exceptionally fraught.

Just over half of respondents (52 per cent) indicated that gaining parental consent for testing has been a difficulty, alongside finding sufficient space in their school or college to set up testing stations, and recruiting sufficient numbers of staff to run them.

Leaders have been dealing with snarky correspondence over ventilation, face masks and the efficacy of tests. They have been on the receiving end of legal threats. They’ve had to navigate their way through a labyrinth of government guidance on a range of logistical issues, including, in effect, how to turn your school or college into a temporary field hospital.

Whether they wanted to do this or not, whether they believed in the approach, it’s what they’ve done. 

And now, in the main, that detailed preparatory work is completed. Next week, like the Blue Peter tortoise, the nation begins the process of being lifted out of its cardboard box of enforced hibernation. And it begins with our children and young people – and the wide range of staff who weave a special kind of magic across our schools and colleges.

So, after all these months of stop-start education, of uncertainties and anxieties, next week we hope for the beginning of the end

Well done to a teaching profession too easily caricatured in the media. Well done to the many other staff who make our schools and colleges places of security and joy. And well done to the nation’s education leaders who have made all this happen, through relentless effort underpinned by relentless worry.

And, as the first stage of their educational regeneration, perhaps our pupils and students need to be introduced to 1970s singing duo Peters and Lee. Because, as the staff at Wales High School in Rotherham remind us, the message to them in the coming week from schools and colleges across the country is a simple one: 

Welcome home, welcome 
Come on in and close the door 
You've been gone too long 
Welcome, you're home once more.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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