When I was at school, in the days when we had teachers who were careers advisers, I don’t remember being offered the chance to think about becoming a futurologist.
Nowadays, it seems, everyone is one – making predictions about what the world will look like when we finally get beyond the world as it is now.
As that eminent and pioneering futurologist Charles Handy put it many years ago: “The future is not inevitable. We can influence it, if we know what we want it to be.”
I hope that’s right. And I hope no one is currently fixating on how children will cope with missing out on key stage 2 tests or how might Progress 8 scores be measured.
I hope instead we’ll frame a bigger, more ambitious vision for what the educational landscape should look like.
So what might the new normal look like when schools and colleges eventually reopen?
That could be weeks, months or a whole term away. While the students whose exams have been cancelled are our immediate concern, we know from Ofqual’s announcement that they will be awarded grades and will be able to move on to the next stage of their lives through a system of moderated assessment. Not all will be happy with that outcome. Some will feel they would have done better in an exam.
But the system will work and it will be as fair and consistent as it possibly can be in these extraordinary circumstances.
And in the process we’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate principled, evidence-based assessment is the core business of teachers and that ethical leadership across schools and colleges will deliver the results in the interests of each young person.
The less immediately obvious collateral damage is to the children and young people who are at other pivotal points in their education – Year 6 pupils who in September are due to start secondary school, and Year 10 and 12 students whose GCSE and A-level courses will have been disrupted.
No matter how brilliantly schools and their teachers manage remote learning, they will not be able to replicate the experience and interaction that takes place in a classroom. Nobody seriously thinks that the dynamics of a school can be reproduced by teachers working on laptops in their living rooms. It is equally unrealistic to think that student engagement will be the same without the structure, familiarity and reassurance of the school day.
And much more importantly, many of our pupils will be deeply anxious about the crisis in general and their own family and friends in particular. Some will have been seriously ill themselves, or lost close family members. All of us will be affected by scenes ahead of disease and news of an increasing death rate – yet without the sense of community schools can give to help young people to navigate things so upsetting.
When they return to school then, children will be at very different points from where we would normally expect them to be, and from one another. The disparity between the advantaged and disadvantaged will be increasing by the day.
An enormous effort will be required to identify the learning gaps in the case of each individual, and what additional support will be required to help them to catch up as quickly as possible, without this becoming an unmanageable ordeal for all concerned. This will be true of all pupils, but, as I say, the most pressing concern will be for those who are currently in Years 6, 10 and 12.
The first group – the current Year 6s – would normally have spent part of the summer term preparing for the transition to secondary school. If the shutdown cuts into that time, as seems likely, the ability to prepare them for the biggest step in their lives so far will be constrained. I have no doubt that primary schools will endeavour to fill this gap by sending information, advice and reassurance to parents.
However, much of the normal practice of taster days and so on will obviously not be possible. If schools do not reopen until September, these pupils will begin life in secondary school having last set foot in their primary school more than six months earlier. They will very obviously require significant support in adapting back to the rhythms of school life and in a very new setting.
Students in Years 10 and 12 will also face significant challenges. None of us need reminding about the huge amount of content in the reformed GCSE and A-level specifications. Disruption to even part of a term would be difficult in this context, but if that was to extend to an entire term, we are truly in a situation which will make it incredibly hard to cover the content required, certainly in any depth. Likewise, for that matter, children currently in Year 5 who will sits Sats next year.
In setting out these difficulties, I have no doubt that schools, colleges, teachers and other staff will rise to these challenges and do everything possible to ensure there is no disadvantage to any pupil.
However, what I am building to is this simple plea for those working in education to be left to do just that – to focus on education in its deepest and most humane form.
Ofsted and performance tables: take a backseat
If schools are now shut for an extended period, it is essential that they are able to concentrate on tackling these issues when they return. The last thing they will need is a return to the full paraphernalia of the accountability system. The idea of the immediate resumption of Ofsted inspections would be unthinkable in schools which are fully occupied tackling the impact of so much disruption.
Neither would it make sense to resume school performance tables in such turbulent circumstances, and with the learning of millions of children having gone through an unprecedented upheaval. It just won’t be possible to return to business as normal, because the new normal is likely to be very different from the old normal. And so it will need to be.
Because what we’ll need is a period of national rebirth, in which children regain the habits of learning, are reacquainted with the reassuring rhythms and routines of school life, in which the teaching profession is left to help young people to make up for lost time.
We have some tough days and weeks ahead. But that notion of rebirth – of creating the future we want – lies somewhere ahead. And it will give an extraordinary opportunity to focus on what truly matters.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders