Unity Howard is Director of the New Schools Network.
With the Prime Minister signalling there will be news this week on the plan to re-open schools, this topic has very much become a lynchpin for the post-Coronavirus recovery.
On an almost daily basis journalists question politicians, medical officers and scientific experts on when schools will re-open in England.
But for those in education, ‘when’ is less of an issue than ‘how’ and, more controversially, ‘why’.
Today, these debates feel incredibly important.
But when it comes to the next decade, the reality is they are not.
The last general election focused on inequality of opportunity, the disadvantage gap, lack of consistency of ambition and a levelling up of opportunity across the country.
These issues are more important today as the impact of Coronavirus takes hold. We cannot take our foot off the pedal in driving this forward.
The Department for Education is grappling with the practical solutions posed by re-opening. Which year groups to bring back first; how to manage with continuing staff absences; what social distancing measures might be necessary.
Coffee shops, B&Q and (thank God) Greggs, are testing measures like this. But while the majority of businesses can operate with some social distancing, this is not the case in schools.
You cannot mandate teachers to keep children apart, ensuring a two metre distance in the classroom (unless we move to tiny numbers), corridor (unless we rebuild most of our schools), or sandbox (just impossible).
There is also a growing debate about the ‘why’, as policy wonks busy themselves with re-imagining education.
What is the role of external assessment or Ofsted? Should schools instil a love of learning, or just provide childcare so that parents can get back to work?
This can be intellectually stimulating, but asking ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ obscures more important questions about the long-term impact of Coronavirus and the risk of a lost generation of pupils.
There have been some exceptions – in the last few days, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman flagged that the attainment gap is only going to widen the longer schools stay closed, with the most deprived children facing greater challenges to their continued education.
The Education Endowment Foundation has warned even more starkly that progress made over the last decade to narrow the attainment gap by around 10 per cent could well be reversed by school closures, and that the annual loss of learning over the summer holidays will become cavernous for some communities.
So we should park the wearisome debates we are all used to in education. The concept of the school year running from September to July; minimum class sizes; set year groups and school terms; and fixed assessment points.
This is pre- not post-Coronavirus language; it’s old money not new.
In the wake of this crisis, schools have come up with some brilliantly innovative solutions to these challenges.
Take King’s Leadership Academy Warrington, where pupils are doing a full complement of lessons each day online with attendance that is higher than most schools’ dreams.
Or Oak National Academy – an online school that has been set up virtually overnight, and has taught over two million lessons in just one week.
These achievements deserve considerable praise. They were unimaginable just a few weeks’ ago.
But if we keep obsessing over when and how to open schools, understanding and improving the impact of initiatives like these won’t happen at the rate they need to.
This is not a theoretical debate about the purpose of education. In five years’ time, we won’t be measuring the process or the timing, or the idea of schooling.
With that in mind, there are three guiding principles that Government must keep its sights firmly fixed upon:
- Achievement: Not necessarily measured by exam grades, but by children leaving school to move onto further education, high quality apprenticeships or fulfilling employment
- Security: We need to ensure our young people can actively engage in their education, in a safe environment which prioritises their physical and emotional wellbeing
- Equality: A child’s future should never be decided by their background – whether they come from an urban tower block or an isolated coastal town, equal life chances should be at the heart of any education strategy
All of these are exponentially more challenging to deliver in the circumstances we now face. But they should matter.
That might mean things that are hard to stomach, like postponing schools opening except for the educationally and socially disadvantaged, and vulnerable pupils, until next academic year.
Whenever the country decides to re-open schools, and however it is done, is less important than we might think from reading the news every day.
What we should care about is the societal and economic impact of every decision being taken right now.
Overcoming inequalities for this generation must be our number one focus.