Schooling beyond lockdown

Wednesday 20th January 2021

Routledge

Why there’s more to ‘catch-up’ than catching up

Understandably, there has been a strong focus on the impact of COVID-19 on particular cohorts of children and young people – those starting school, those at transition points, those in the GCSE and A level years, and those starting at college or university, and those approaching finals.

But, as I argue in my new book, Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19, as important as the experience of these groups is, we need to broaden our lens beyond those about to move to a new educational setting or to face examination (by whatever means).

Why? Because the challenges of both curricular catch-up and psychological recovery are profound and, for the most part, new to an education and schooling infrastructure that has not had to deal with this kind of system shock before, a shock that has revealed the multiple functions of schooling in industrialised societies. Let’s look briefly at each of these challenges and the multi-modal purpose of modern, or rather postmodern, schooling.

Curricular catch-up

To date, the debate about curriculum catch-up has been woefully inadequate and targeted, as noted above, at specific year groups and focused on gap filling at this point in time.

However, every child or young person will have had their expected and planned curriculum progression – a journey from Reception to Sixth Form or college – disrupted by COVID-19 and this will have its impact over time, not simply in the COVID moment. As I have written elsewhere, it can’t simply be addressed by a patch-work of piecemeal booster classes and tutor sessions in the months ahead. The need is to begin to work out now what individual learners and particular cohorts will need, not next term or next year but across the remainder of their time in full-time education, including any period spent in Further or Higher Education.

Bringing together thought and practice leaders in curriculum development, perhaps in a reconfigured new generation and arms-length Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency is one option that remains open to the Department for Education. Abolishing QCDA was one of the first acts that Michael Gove took as Education Secretary a decade ago. As with the near abolition of coursework and modular testing, and the enduring assault on teacher assessment, it has come back to bite the government and its remaining educational agencies hard. Reconvening the kind of expert community that QCDA formerly brought together could be the first act of the next Secretary of State for Education.

Psychological recovery

The structure of the National Curriculum and the formality of examination specifications at least sets out what, in non-COVID times, children and young people ought to have covered over the course of the original lockdown, during the tiers and bubbles of the autumn term and across the current renewed suspension of schooling.

As I argue in Lessons From Lockdown, assessing the social loss of close-on a year’s missed playdates for the typical six-year-old, or the time that a young teenager might have spent simply hanging out with friends over this period is much more difficult, and the impact potentially more pernicious. These are the water cooler moments of childhood that are so hard to replicate on line, or in some artificially constituted and always prone to burst ‘bubble’.

And the challenges for schools post-lockdown are not all on one side of the ledger. Lockdown has not been the one dimensional and constantly negative experience portrayed by politician and media pundit alike. Instead, my research with over one hundred pupils, parents and professionals reveals how young people have experienced the pandemic very differently – as lockdown strugglers, survivors and thrivers – many of them shifting involuntarily between these locations on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Assessing and acting on these highly personalised levels of need remains a challenge for which pre-lockdown schooling was acutely unprepared, as many a SEND practitioner will testify.

And accommodating those with so-called ‘special’ needs is but one end of a spectrum of the support that will need to be offered. Supporting the able, self-motivated, on-line savvy home learner on their return to school (a learner who can no longer see the point in this industrial, time constrained and directed approach to learning) may prove to be as difficult a challenge for our schools as addressing the well-documented and newly highlighted gaps in learning and in patterns of disadvantage that the virus did not create but which it has certainly accentuated.

The social and socio-economic purpose of schooling

By way of backdrop, a positive legacy of this awful virus might be a new awareness of the multiple roles of schooling – to educate, yes, but much, much more than this: to enable parents to participate in the workforce and to give them, literally, a refuelling break from full-time parenting itself, to develop a whole range of skills and dispositions vital for success in life, but currently squeezed too often into a corner of the PSHEE curriculum, in there with the registers and homework diaries, to create a social space in which friendships are made, some of which may endure for a lifetime, and to enable the creation of meeting hubs for adults at the school gate, the parents’ evening and the special assembly, one that helps sustain our communities, and individuals through the ordinary and extra-ordinary demands of parenthood and adult life more broadly.

Post lockdown, more learning will be blended and online and families and schools will be better and more empathetically connected as a result, but the social and socio-economic purpose of the school or college as an on-site, face-to-face community will remain vital. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge this with a broader performance score card; as any teacher or school or college leader will tell you, grades matter, but a performance culture defined tests, tables and targets doesn’t capture the half of it.

As we shape our post virus learning landscape, we need our policy shapers and system leaders to acknowledge this, to take this lesson from lockdown and to enable us as education professionals to put it at the heart of our educational policy and practice, and to credit schools and colleges with far more than any set of tables can hope to reveal.

Action points for schools and educators

I have argued that experiences of lockdown, nationally and locally, of lockdown pedagogies and of blended and home learning have differed significantly between schools, teachers, children and young people, and families. In this context, I make any recommendations tentatively and conscious that they might not work in every setting but here are six suggestions that school leaders and their staff teams might want to consider:

1. Capture the experience

Ensure that we capture the experience of lockdown and build on it, so that the innovation, creativity and change inspired or demanded by the pandemic becomes a part of the institutional knowledge of our school, not just its institutional history;

2. Build on advances in online practice

Resist the temptation to simply “put the computers back in the cupboard” such that our sometimes-forced gains in digital literacy are embedded in the years ahead, utilising online and blended approaches not just in the classroom but in relationships between the home and the school, and in areas like school governance and community and pupil engagement;

3. Think inclusion-first

Start with inclusion and with therapeutic and attachment-aware approaches that meet the social and development needs of children and young people, building this as the foundation for learning and, in particular, catch-up, such that catch-up flows from inclusion rather than serving as its poor relation;

4. Bring SEND methodologies into the mainstream

In building these inclusive foundations and in adopting inclusion-first strategies, bring the nuanced, personalised and intensely pastoral methodologies of the best SEND practice into the mainstream such that ‘special’ is no longer seen as a pejorative, and that the distinct and particular pastoral and curricular needs of individual children and young people inform classroom pedagogy, curriculum development and assessment strategy;

5. Be strategic and holistic about catch-up

Gap analysis and a range of activities to infill these gaps will be important for those approaching, for instance, particular points in the assessment cycle, notably public examinations, but, as outlined at the outset of this post, a strategic approach that takes as its starting point the curricular impact of children and young people wherever they are on their schooling journey needs to accompany this, and it needs to capture the experiences, skills and qualities that at least some in the ‘COVID generation’ have developed along the way – resilience, character, independence to name but three;

6. Be open and collaborative in all that we do

In the months and years ahead, let’s extend our efforts to be open to learning from each other, such that within schools, between schools and across the professional networks that unite school leaders, school governors, subject specialists, pastoral practitioners and others, we share the lessons from lockdown beyond our own staffrooms, classrooms and communities of interest and practice.

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Lessons From Lockdown
Lessons From Lockdown demonstrates how the pandemic has shone a light on the injustices, inequities and poor political leadership that are endemic in our education system
Nick Johnson
Chief Executive, British Educational Research Association