Announcements and noises off don’t inspire confidence that ministers have learned the lessons of lockdown, writes Kate Chhatwal
A whole year. Anyone who has been listening to schools in that time will have learned important lessons – lessons that make snapping back to the ‘old normal’ neither desirable nor practical. As they reopen, knee-jerk reactions to the challenge of ‘catch-up’ are just as misled. My colleague Dame Sue John never fails to remind me that to plot a course to ‘better’, you have to know where you are starting from. The truth is that we don’t. Yet.
We know pupils haven’t covered the curriculum content we’d expect. We know they’ve had different experiences of learning remotely. But we don’t yet know how wide or deep those gaps are or what it will take to close them. We also haven’t yet understood the things students might have gained from the past year. Why assume the experience has all been bad?
That is why many schools are taking their time to understand what their pupils are bringing back to the classroom, rather that jumping on the bandwagon of summer schools or extended school days and terms. Instead, they are keen to seize the opportunity to focus on the life-affirming, character-building, cultural and social experiences denied their students by the restrictions of lockdown.
Many leaders I speak to felt that the autumn term, though difficult and disrupted, was an opportunity seized to accelerate learning. They are optimistic this feat can be repeated given the flexibility to use ‘catch-up’ funding to meet the needs of their school communities, unconstrained by expectations that they subscribe to government initiatives. If ministers can trust teachers to assess students in place of high-stakes examinations, surely they can trust them with the important prior task of equipping them to succeed?
Schools should not be herded by a central government strategy
Blended approaches are offering enhancements to learning and school life that will surely outlast the pandemic. We know some children flourished working remotely at their own pace. It has also offered opportunities for parental engagement like never before, especially for younger children and those with special educational needs. Schools have led these advances and must be given the time and trust to continue to build on them, not herded by a central government strategy.
Digital ways of working have benefited schools as well as their students. They have unlocked the ability to share ideas and expertise faster and further than ever. And as well as this national – sometimes global – networking, we’ve seen how effective strong local collaboration is.
The past year has shown the benefits facing novel challenges together. Facilitating connections for potentially left-out schools and building a network of collaboration, knowledge exchange and mutual accountability is what we do. Challenge Partners is home to more than 100 academy trusts and a wide range of other local improvement partnerships. We know what matters is that collaboration happens, not the legal structures it happens within. The systemic drive should be to ensure we are not left with underserved and ‘orphaned’ schools, rather than an impulse to corral schools into trusts.
Amid the accelerated pace of the past year, we have been blown away that leaders have made time to share while innovating on the fly. We’ve seen them provide insights and approaches that saved colleagues precious time and headspace. We have witnessed trust leaders sharing impressive programmes to support pupil mental health; headteachers blogging on leading through crisis; and senior leaders running webinars on preparing for life after special school. When we hosted US education leaders sharing their insights on transforming through crisis after Hurricane Katrina, the session was full.
Schools have risen magnificently to every challenge thrown at them, showing agility and creativity. Pointed in the right direction, the acceleration we have seen in schools and the system could speed us into a better future where excellence and equity go hand-in-hand, provided we learn from each other what really works.
If we’ve learned anything from it all, it is surely that too much time has been wasted on league tables and competition. It is only by working together that we will ensure all children have the best (re)start in life.