Steve Mastin is an education consultant. He has advised the Department of Education about the history curriculum, and is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
The Easter holidays have arrived. Schools can feel rightly proud in having stepped up to do their part in these challenging times. And they have done this quietly, and without much media applause.
Friday 20 March was the last day schools remained open to all pupils. And it was the day that headteachers had to make enormous decisions about which pupils would be eligible for education.
The guidance was crystal clear: do not send your child to school unless your work is critical to our nation’s fight against Covid-19. The children of key workers were to be prioritised, and the list of who qualified as key workers seemed enormous. Vulnerable children with extraordinarily challenging home lives also had to be looked after.
Headteachers needed to decide which staff would be required to be in school on Monday morning, not knowing how many pupils would arrive. Schools had to consider safeguarding policies in such unusual times. They had already lost many staff due to health conditions, pregnancy, self-isolation, or family circumstances. Schools needed to contact catering suppliers, cleaning companies, support staff, and bus companies.
Most importantly, headteachers needed to be clear and reassuring to parents. Parents of those who would be eligible for educational provision in schools, and those who would be educating their children at home. All in the space of one day. And they did.
On Monday 23 March, schools waited to see how many pupils would arrive. The state school where I taught for 17 years did not know whether to expect 200 pupils or 50. They planned for 100 to arrive. In the end, 20 pupils arrived, not knowing what was going to happen in school that day. Certain special schools, however, are in the most challenging circumstances since many pupils are often drawn from vulnerable homes where parents need extra support.
The word unprecedented is used relentlessly these days. Schools have closed before for snow and strikes. But the schools remained closed only temporarily. Schools are now closed until they are told otherwise.
That said, schools have been making some extraordinarily tough decisions about how to make this work. Those of you who are not teachers will not quite comprehend the enormous emotional impact of GCSE and A-Level exams being cancelled. When you teach an exam class, you build a sense of camaraderie, of being in it together, and this is crucial to the success of students. The evidence is clear: children pay attention when they hear adults speaking, but not when they hear the same adult saying the same things on a video clip. Teachers provide motivation, humour, reassurance, encouragement, supervision… and you can’t simply switch them off!
Online learning has never been the solution for all pupils. Perhaps we will find in this strange new world, that students and teachers find ways to make it work. Back in 2008, a prediction was made that by 2019, half of all US high school students would be learning online. It’s now 2020. This prediction is not even close in any country. Nor will it be in these strange times. Some parents have one computer and five children. Some homes have limited internet access either because of their rural location or the amount of data they can afford.
Schools have had to make tough decisions about how to educate the vast majority of children who will not be in schools for perhaps the rest of the academic year. Remote learning can work for self-motivated pupils, or children from homes where a parent has the education level to discuss Year 10 physics or the time to read a 19th-century novel. Even the way fractions are taught in primary schools is different from how they were taught when our generation were at school.
Setting work online, which many schools have done for some time, especially for homework, can work for some children. There are many schools in more affluent communities who find it is working well. Teachers can set work, but should not be expected to monitor its completion for every child they teach. Some secondary teachers can teach up to 300 pupils. They are specialists in their subjects. Parents are not.
Above everything else, children’s well-being should be prioritised. Parents also will feel the strain in self-isolation. So, let me make a few suggestions that do not require access to online learning.
Learn to follow a recipe. Bake a cake. Explore garden plants in close detail (of course, many families live in an apartment with no garden and could order online some seedlings to monitor). Paint recyclable objects. Read for an hour a day. Design a city using boxes and other household objects. Practise some old maths, rather than trying to learn new maths (which might lead to frustration). Watch a history film every week. On a walk, talk about different types of trees.
Children also need time to play, especially if there are no siblings, since friends can no longer socialise in person. Encourage children to have a conversation with friends at the same time using social media. Keep it simple. Don’t overload. And it’s ok for children to get bored.
And to our teachers and headteachers: thank you and a happy Easter!