Mark Lehain is the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.
Whilst some argue about what Covid has changed for good, for most of us the pandemic has just confirmed what we already thought. It’s no different when we look at discussions around schools either.
The issues being pushed at the moment under the “Covid changes everything” banner are the same as those being pushed by the educational establishment before: Ofsted and performance tables are awful; we should trust teachers to assess pupils for exams; GCSEs set kids up to fail; the curriculum crushes creativity. They’re the same things we have heard for decades, but dressed up in a shiny new corona wrapping.
One worrying shift is apparent though. We expect this kind of thing from the teaching unions and Simon Jenkins, but these demonstrably bad ideas have gained traction with some who should know better. This includes people in the Conservative Party who should be more aware than most of the reasons for the successes in schools since 2010.
In addition, we need to be honest and admit that it is still too soon to know what, if any, major changes are needed, as we have limited hard evidence of the type and size of impact the pandemic has had on children and schools.
This will come in time, but right now we are largely being guided by anecdotes and educated assumptions, and these are inevitably influenced by our own prejudices – so we should proceed with caution.
What do these anecdotes and assumptions suggest right now? Well, attendance is much better than feared by some, and teachers are reporting how pleased their colleagues and pupils are to be back. Kids generally like school, and staff trusted their leaders to get them back safely.
In terms of learning, there do appear to be big gaps between what children know and can do versus where they’d normally be by now. This gap varies between family, class, school and region – depending on how hard they were hit by things during the past year, and the support at home for learning.
This is not remotely surprising – but we shouldn’t overreact and conclude that it all has to be addressed this year or next. For most children, it is going to be a marathon and not a sprint.
More time in school – be it longer days or longer terms – may be part of the solution, but only if the quality of what is going on is good, and if pupils are able to make the most of it. Our littlest children need to flop at the end of the day, and parents don’t want their kids cramming morning, noon, and night – additional schooling should be a mixture of the academic with the social and the physical.
That said, some things are more urgent when we look at the youngest and oldest pupils.
By now four, five, and six year-olds would normally be well on their way with, or have mastered, their phonics. They’d have discovered the joys of reading for themselves, and experienced that wonderful escape velocity moment when they can learn independently from books.
Lots will have cracked this at home with their family or during their spells in school, but too many won’t have. This needs to be a priority for a while before they can move on to learning everything else.
At the upper end of school, students who have been studying for GCSEs, BTECs and A-levels etc have missed huge chunks of their courses. So as well as ensuring Year 11 and Year 13s get grades this summer and can smoothly move to their next destination, we have to think hard about those in Years 10 and 12 who will sit exams in summer 2022. Given the time lost and gaps created, it is going to take a while to get back to “normal” in this regard.
Importantly, this is not a case for scrapping GCSEs. The chaos last summer, and possible repeat this year, shows exactly why exams that are externally set and externally marked are the fairest way to assess what people know and can do. We’re already hearing cases of pushy parents leaning on schools to bump up grades – why would we move to a system where this was business as usual?
Also, the UK is unusual in that loads and loads of students move around at 16; we need reliable exam grades at this point, to tell us what they know and can do, but also to help them get onto the right course, apprenticeship, or job.
More generally, just as the Government was only able to fund all the interventions we’ve seen because it sorted out the public finances after 2010, I think there is a case to be made that generally our school system was in a better position to address the pandemic challenges because of the reforms since then.
There is really interesting anecodotal evidence that the good academy trusts developed in the last decade have generally done the best job of supporting their staff, pupils, and families. They didn’t wait for the Department for Education, and got on with procuring laptops for kids, PPE for staff, or running extended days and term times last summer.
Add to this too many stories about local authorities leaving their remaining schools floundering between a rock and a hard place, and I’m even more convinced we need to finish the job when it comes to academisation.
Elsewhere, changes at Ofsted in recent years mean that it isn’t so reliant on SATs or GCSE grades for inspections – so they’re in a better position to get back into schools and see how they’re doing, especially in regards to pupils safety.
As for the siren calls to stop measuring what kids know and assessing instead “wellbeing” or “creativity” – it’s a false dichotomy: the way you make kids happy, healthy and creative is by ensuring all schools are safe and orderly places of learning, and that children experience a well-planned, knowledge-rich curriculum that exposes them to the best that’s been thought said & done – across the humanities, science, art, music, drama, technology – as well as english and maths.
Reading great literature is better for wellbeing than poorly-planned mindfulness sessions; quality P.E. is better for one’s mood than cod psychology; and end-of-course exams are less stressful than the endless pressure of coursework and “portfolio evidence gathering.”
So until and unless new evidence emerges to the contrary, what our children and schools actually need is for everyone to keep calm and carry on. We need schools to get back to doing what they were before the pandemic struck. That work was narrowing the gaps then, and with a concerted effort and greater focus, it can do so even quicker again now. Anything else is a distraction, and will hold back most those whose need is greatest.