Schools will reopen to a new world. They have earned the nation’s trust and should be supported to shape it, writes Mike Ion
The first thing we need to come to terms with when it comes to schools reopening is that it will take time for students, teachers and parents to readjust. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is, it will take far longer to get there than it did to adapt to lockdown.
The second is that the ‘new normal’ will not just be in schools but across society, and that schools will have a responsibility to help shape and define what it looks like.
School leaders’ response to the crisis has been amazing, albeit largely improvised, and one of its defining characteristics has been the light shone on the too-often-forgotten contributions schools and teachers make to their communities. Staff understand the importance of their school to their local areas, and COVID 19 has highlighted the fact that headteachers are major ‘influencers’, to use a term from the Instagram generation. Families look to school-based staff for reassurance in times of crisis, for support and guidance on topics way beyond education.
And whether it’s donating PPE and making visors for the NHS or distributing food vouchers and running a foodbank, schools have shown time and again that they don’t wait to be asked before putting that help in place.
The new normal must recognise and celebrate this vital work and include it in any evaluation of a school’s effectiveness.
So much of our system encourages a divisive ‘them and us’ culture
Another key feature has been a new-found sense of cooperation. Local authorities, MATs, SATs, headteachers, teachers, governors, parents, private schools, universities and commercial companies have shared resources for free, offered each other advice, sought innovative ways of working together and generally been nice to each other. After what feels like forever it has been truly heartening to watch collaboration trump competition.
The past few weeks have helped us realise that though sometimes a bit disparate and disjointed we remain part of a national education system, a system that fundamentally shares the same goals and aspirations and broadly faces the same challenges. We should seek to build on the ‘all in this together’ mantra and continue to support the creation, design and implementation of free learning platforms for all.
But it isn’t enough simply to say school leaders should promote the view that we are stronger together. Collective endeavour really is both a strength and a virtue, yet so much of our system encourages a divisive ‘them and us’ culture.
For example, league tables do little to promote collegiately and in fact cause segregation of children on the basis of flawed data. What is more they reveal little, if anything, about the overall effectiveness or character of a school and the many social and economic factors which impact on children’s attainment. Like all good sales pitches, league tables give only one side of the story, and not the one that’s favourable to pupils on free school meals, children with additional needs, or the teachers who work with them.
Then there’s the Ofsted/school divide, which needs to quickly become part of the old order. If this necessitates radical reform of the inspection system, then so be it. Virtually all schools across the country have responded to the challenges created by COVID19 in an exemplary fashion, making the outstanding label seem at best irrelevant, and the inadequate judgment unthinkable.
Whether we are willing to consider these changes or not, we may have little choice in the end. Young people who have been accessing learning in these past few weeks have done so in more varied, thoughtful and engaging ways. Their expectations will be changed. And those who haven’t been accessing learning haven’t been for a reason. Continuing to focus on targets, learning objectives, WALTs and WILFs over the creation of learning experiences that fully engage, challenge and excite them would do them all an injustice.
Schools will come out of this crisis earlier than most of the rest of society. Their renewed taste for civic leadership is the foundation upon which the ‘new normal’ should be built. It will take time, but all they need is to be trusted and supported to make a success of it. After all, they’ve earned it.