The return to school without exams presents a golden opportunity for schools to practise what they value, write Rebecca Boomer-Clark and Jake Curtis
Our organisations support some of the country’s most vulnerable teenagers – the very children who, sadly but unsurprisingly, have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Together, we have been considering what seeds of hope have come out of the past year and how we can harness these opportunities to support them to thrive.
First and foremost, this period of interrupted education has provided a rare opportunity for us to reflect on the long-term vision for our education system. As well as securing academic outcomes, schools have demonstrated the vital role they play in helping to mould healthy and happy citizens who contribute to their community, their country and the world around them, .
Perhaps if schools were held to account against some of these wider objectives, they would feel more incentivised and rewarded for that incredibly tough work. In normal times, the effort that goes into keeping those students who are ‘on the edge’ in school, learning and achieving, is often unseen.
But throughout the pandemic, we have seen many schools step up in ways they couldn’t have imagined previously. The level to which they have been able to adapt to challenging new circumstances proves once and for all that there is a false dichotomy between academic rigour and pastoral support. The best schools do both. They understand that the relationships developed in one arena enable engagement in the other, that they are mutually reinforcing.
During repeated school closures and lockdowns, engagement with parents and families leapt to the top of many teachers’ priority lists. For the past year, they have fulfilled the jobs of food bank operator, social worker and education welfare officer. We believe there is an opportunity to maintain those connections in order to provide the kind of joined-up support that we know enables all young people to flourish.
The lack of formal exams this summer presents a huge opportunity for schools
Vulnerability comes in many forms, so the support we offer our students must be flexible and personalised. All of us, children and adults alike, have lost the sense of routine, purpose and connection that helped bolster our mental health. We know that many of the students who have struggled the most were not necessarily even on the radar of pastoral teams previously. This is not a surprise. Just as there were many children for whom school represented exam stress and social pressure, there were a great many others for whom school provided a chance to succeed, a supportive routine and valued friendships.
We all know just how much deeper the toll of this ‘winter lockdown’ has been. Because of the shared nature of this challenging period, there is an opportunity for empathy and connection between professionals and their more vulnerable students in a way that may have been difficult to achieve before.
When schools return next month, staff will have to be very sensitive to mental health issues. These are likely to arise in unforeseen places. Interventions will need to be based on individual need rather than any ‘label’ or previous diagnosis. They will need to be based on nurture, routine and challenge to ensure pupils feel fulfilled and confident once again, especially if there is time to acknowledge and appreciate successes and qualities. Simple ‘shout-outs’ offer so much to ensure children feel truly proud of the good decisions they make.
So, the lack of formal exams this summer presents a huge opportunity for schools. It’s a chance to embrace the richer elements of the wider curriculum and broader life at school. There may be wonderful opportunities to provide more outdoor activities, sports, drama and music when all pupils return. Participation in these activities is heavily correlated to increased engagement with school for vulnerable students. They are also crucial ingredients to promoting the long-term physical and mental health of all children.
Exams will return. As will routine Ofsted inspections. But it should not be at the expense of the insights gained in their absence. Schools have shown their incredible capacity to teach and to care in the toughest of circumstances. As we emerge from this (hopefully) final period of interruption, it is vital we ensure our school system provides the best of both into the future.