'The world we knew is over - let's focus on the future'

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton says that, if teachers focus on what they can control, we can create an education system fit for a post-pandemic era

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus: Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman has got it right on schools reopening, says Geoff Barton

These are tough times for control freaks. I know everyone keeps telling us that this is the new normal, but could we please – even just for a day or two – have the old normal back?

In reality, of course, there’s no turning back and, control freak or not, we just have to accept that our previous world of familiar educational rhythms and routines isn’t coming back any time soon. As the writer Kahlil Gibran said in a different age: “Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.” Quite.

So let’s take stock of where we are and where, at some point, we might be. Let’s look at what we might start to control.

Cautious steps

Let’s start by acknowledging that having taken this week’s first cautious steps of more widely opening schools we are, in truth, merely at the early phase.

Education cannot run like this in the longer term. If I were the parent of a child between Year 2 and 5, at some point I’d start to ask: "So, what about my child? Don't they deserve to see their teacher, too? Must they wait until September or beyond?" And, at some point, parents of pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9 will ask the same.

That isn’t to endorse the prime minister’s announcement the other week that every primary child should have four weeks in school before the summer break.

That, as so often, was a proposal driven by headline-chasing rhetoric rather than deliverable reality. Because if children were to be in "bubbles" of no more than 15 per class, the only way of bringing every primary child into school for their four weeks would be to double the number of classrooms and the number of teachers.

So, it’s reassuring to see that this plan appears to be receding.

Remarkable approaches

Where we are now – with the teaching profession using remarkable approaches to welcome groups of children back and re-energising near-empty schools with smiles and laughter – is a significant step, but an interim one.

There are many more children out there, including those who struggle most with learning, young people who are in danger of falling irretrievably behind, some of whom may never return to their schools and colleges.

They need the stepping stone to a better life that only teachers can provide. We need to be ambitious on their behalf.

Look at what has been announced in Wales this week – an ambition for every child to have time to reconnect with their teacher and their school before summer for an assessment of their wellbeing and an evaluation of their learning needs.

There is no plan to do this in England at the moment. But it must be worth exploring because many children will otherwise have been out of school for six months by September without any direct contact with their teachers.

September onwards

Beyond this next phase is the question of what education will need to look like from September onwards.

It now seems inconceivable that we will return to full timetables, with every child and young person back in classes of 30 or more, of bustling playgrounds, crowded corridors, and din-filled dining areas.

The virus will still be with us. And, as temperatures drop, as outdoor spaces become less accessible, as society in general moves indoors, the risk of transmission in different areas will lead to further spikes in infection rates.

All of this will necessitate small classes, reduced social mixing, and social distancing as far as possible to manage the risks and minimise transmission. Thus, the model of education from September will have to reflect this reality, and it will have to be sustainable over weeks and months, for as long as the virus remains a threat.

Blended learning

We can start to see an outline of what this model may look like – a blend of remote education and direct teaching in classrooms. But it is the sketchiest of sketchy outlines.

Flesh needs to be put on the bones of blended learning, with thinking about which parts of a curriculum do pupils need to experience in school or college with a teacher, and which parts can they practise and consolidate at home.

We’ll need to think what would the cycle of remote education and classroom teaching look like? How could more support be focused on the children who need it most?

How could the digital divide between rich and poor be bridged so that remote education works well for all pupils?

What is the plan for exams and assessment next year in such extraordinary circumstances? Can we really assume business as usual for key stage 2 tests, GCSEs, A levels and other qualifications?

Or if we remove content, change the assessment system, make allowances for lost learning, will the class of 2021 feel their achievements were marginalised through a series of dumbing-down measures?

These are not abstract musings. These are issues that have to be addressed now.

National plan

Children, young people, parents, communities, schools and colleges all need the certainty of a robust national plan, informed by scientific and medical advice. This should be constructed between the government and the education sector so it has wider acceptance and support.

Such ambition for education needs to be expressed through government guidance that is clear, timely and flexible, enabling schools and colleges in their own distinctive contexts to be able to plan their timetables and allocate their resources to do what’s right for their communities.

And given that we are already in June, this process needs to start very soon indeed. The government so far has looked permanently on the back foot, responding to events, shifting its priorities, changing its own narrative. This has undermined confidence.

Lead by example

Now is a time to get on the front foot led by people trusted more than politicians – our teachers and their leaders across the nation’s schools and colleges.

A national plan for education would show strong, purposeful leadership. It would serve the best interests of children and young people. It would give schools, colleges and their staff the security of a clear path through these uncertain times.

But time is slipping away and, unless ministers wake up to the urgency, we will remain stuck in the chaotic policy no man’s land that has characterised so much of the past few months.

Gibran was right in saying that our anxiety comes from wanting to control the future.

That’s why it’s time to roll up our sleeves and take control. Because, in truth, there’s more that we can control than perhaps we allow ourselves to realise.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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