Place learning at the heart of the prison experience

The challenge that a progressive government needs to address.

The prison population is overly-defined by the demographics of educational and societal disadvantage.

Thus, our prisons are disproportionately populated by those who have origins in the care system, by those from the most economically disadvantaged minority ethnic groups and, critically, by those with low levels of educational attainment and, specifically, low levels of literacy and numeracy, something that is ordinarily coupled with the absence of accredited workplace qualifications.

A statutory entitlement to education for all but those on the shortest sentences ought to be a signature policy for any progressive government, with educational progress a key component in the decision-making processes for parole and release.

In particular, this entitlement ought to feature literacy and numeracy development and apprenticeship or Higher Education access.

In effect, incarceration without education – especially in terms of basic skills and readiness for employability – is incarceration without the prospect of rehabilitation. No progressive government should tolerate that.

The proposed policy response

Establishing a pilot project across a limited number of prisons ought to be an achievable goal within the next Parliament and could be part of the broader transformation of criminal justice policy.

Within a decade, learning ought to sit at the heart of the prison experience, and education a practical demonstration of the state’s commitment to rehabilitation.

Recast vocational and technical learning as professional education

The challenge that a progressive government needs to address.

Too often, those who end up on ‘vocational’ courses, do so reluctantly as a result of a lack of success on ‘academic’ study programmes.

In some cases, programmes of so-called ‘work-related learning’ are designed specifically for those who have been excluded from, or marginalised within, mainstream education, typically because of ‘challenging’ behaviour.

As always, those concentrated in such provision are drawn largely from generationally disadvantaged families and communities, many with particular (diagnosed or undiagnosed) educational needs. In short, vocational and technical courses are those that too many learners end up on rather than aspire to.

As long as this remains the case, the academic-vocational divide will remain a chasm that is unbridgeable – and throwing the naughty child a car engine as a behavioural fix will ensure that all manner of vocational, technical or otherwise work-related learning never gains serious traction as a viable choice for academically successful and socially advantaged middle-class learners.

In such a scenario, the UK impedes itself in generating the cadre of top-end engineers that it needs to thrive in a globalised (and still globalising) mid-twenty-first century economy.

The proposed policy response

The policy response for a progressive government needs to be five-fold:

(1) that those struggling with the academic curriculum (and notably the core skills of literacy and numeracy) need to have those needs creatively and determinedly addressed (and not simply displaced by some other kind of notionally ‘work-related’ curricular content);

(2) that vocational, technical and work-related courses need to be designed for all and not simply for those struggling to address or who have been displaced from the mainstream curriculum;

(3) that the National Curriculum ought itself to be remodelled to ensure that all students experience vocational, technical and work-related learning, at least at Key Stage 4 and potentially earlier, as an ordinary part of their mainstream education;

(4) that the terms vocational, technical and work-related learning are replaced by the terminology of professional learning;

(5) that the language of professional learning (which ought to span law, medicine, the full range of STEM careers and those across the arts) is placed at the heart of a campaign to attract the middle classes and the educationally successful into areas of learning and work that, too often, are considered the preserve of their educationally less successful and/or socially disadvantaged peers.

Smooth the transition from secondary to further education

The challenge that a progressive government needs to address.

For those proceeding from GCSE to A level in a school that has a popular and flourishing sixth form, the transition from pre- to post-16 education is often unproblematic.

However, for those who have not achieved the GCSE grades required to make such a transition, for those who wish to pursue A level courses (or packages of courses) that are not available in their current secondary school, or for those who wish to progress to other forms of education and training (often within the Further Education sector), they face a cliff-edge, a cliff edge that demands quick decisions in the wake of sometimes disappointing GCSE results.

This is challenging for both young people and their families, and those families with the lowest levels of education system-specific cultural capital are those for whom this cliff edge is most daunting.

Part of the answer must lie in softening this cliff-edge by adopting a model of “longer-form transition”. In such a model, the lens cast on entry to secondary school is not – given the now embedded extension of the educational participation age to 18 – is 11-18 not 11-16.

The school’s task is to lay the foundations for a child’s education to 18 (that is the end of Year 13, not the end of Year 11), embedding this during the GCSE options process, usually delivered during the course of Year 9, whether or not the school delivers the provision in Years 12 or 13.

The proposed policy response

In practical and policy terms, this means five things:

(1) A greater investment in Careers Education and Guidance across and beyond the secondary phase;

(2) Careers Education and Guidance programmes that engage students and their parents, within a broader family learning framework;

(3) Greater knowledge in individual schools of the post-16 options available to young people across the local area, rather than just within the school’s sixth form;

(4) The creation of local fora that enable providers to share this knowledge;

(5) Funding models that incentivise collaboration between providers – especially between schools and FE colleges -something that existing models largely militate against.

Rebalance the relationship between inclusion and attainment

The challenge that a progressive government needs to address.

When the education apparatus is characterised by system-wide underperformance, a focus on raising standards against clear metrics, such as test and examination outcomes, makes sense, but as progress is made, diminishing returns set in.

After rapid improvements in the performance of a then underperforming system in the 1990s and early noughties, this has been the story of the counter-productive impact of too many education policy interventions for the past two decades: teachers driven to burnout by a relentless focus on standards and performance coupled with a concentration on young people from those cohorts and communities that the system has failed for generations.

And, of course, where this challenge is greatest – in under-resourced coastal, rural and urban communities – the rewards for success are the lowest and the hardest to claim.

It is in these “career damagingly difficult schools” where recruitment and retention difficulties at all levels are at their most challenging and where pupils and their families are short of the kinds of cultural capital valued by the system.

A part of the answer is to flip schooling policy on its head and to focus on “inclusion-first” rather than “attainment-first” strategies. In such a model, a premium is placed on enabling all to access education, rather than on some (more often the already advantaged) to excel at it. This will not only enable the under-resourced to take gains from a system that has failed them generationally but will open up access to those with SEND and to those for whom a purely attainment driven and highly competitive system only compounds challenges around neuro-diversity, mental health and wellbeing.

In such a scenario, a battery of good grades (alone) gets mistaken for a good education. Moreover, a reality emerges in which the more successful we are with the 60,70, 80, 90%, the more excluded the 40, 30, 20, 10% become, with the emergence of market failure and what Ofsted itself identifies as a group of ‘stuck’ schools. In short, one dimensional attainment-first strategies contribute to the exclusion of the most vulnerable in the system, whether this vulnerability is socio-economic or not.

The proposed policy response:

In terms of policy responses, what does this mean in practice? These five steps might help us on the way:

(1) A Schools Premium funding stream for those schools that serve the most challenged communities;

(2) Pay and conditions incentives for those prepared to lead and work in such schools;

(3) A deliberate focus on development support rather than inspection for a defined period in these schools;

(4) A focus on family learning strategies to engage parental communities;

(5) Governance Action Zones to attract the most talented in our school governance communities to become engaged in these schools, possibly encouraged by some remunerative support, especially for leaders of governance.

Why building the capacity for lifelong learning can’t wait until school’s over!

Has the pandemic offered us the opportunity to build a new and stronger strategic partnership between the compulsory and post-compulsory phases?

It is proving a long road from lockdown, one full of twists, bumps and turns: the original shut down, the gradual softening of this, the autumnal shift from “Eat Out To Help Out” to “Drink Up and Get Out”, the delayed circuit breakers that came only after the nation had filled their fridges for Christmas, to the current lockdown, and, now, the prospect of its easing with the vaccine roll-out and the publication of the government’s roadmap. Still, it’s hard to not be cautious with our hope.

And, throughout this journey, schools and education have been hot topics, trending on social media and making the news daily.

During this time, we’ve seen schooling and education conflated in a way that irritates those working in post compulsory settings. In short, too little attention has been given to those involved in further and higher education (other than the quarantining in university halls of ‘freshers’ in mid-autumn). FE and Adult Education have hardly had a mention, leaving a host of educators and what they provide ignored or forgotten, and implying that lifelong learning is somehow separate to that learning undertaken during the school years.

My question is, can we use the pandemic to grow a stronger partnership between the compulsory stages of education and the post-compulsory phases? Can we bridge this divide? Can we build models of lifelong learning that are, well, lifelong, embracing schooling along the journey rather than following it?

People, Place and Purpose

My exploration of how the schooling system has coped during the crisis has led me to embark on the writing of what is now two books, Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 (2021), published by Routledge last month, and Bubble Schools: the long road from lockdown (forthcoming). A final book, in what is set to become a lockdown trilogy, provisionally entitled Post-pandemic Learning: the case for re-schooling society, is intended to set out a broader all age, all phase analysis, will follow in due course.

The first book, Lessons from Lockdown, tracks the early experiences of lockdown through to the end of August 2020, and identifies three key lockdown-inspired (or, at least lockdown-enforced) changes that I want to explore further here:

The engagement of parents and other family members in supporting the learning of children and young people during lockdown
The sites in which learning takes place
The broader discussions about the purpose of learning and the future needs of learners.
Simplified, these might be referred to as ‘People’, ‘Place’ and ‘Purpose’.

The shifts in these areas have profound implications and could lead to new opportunities for compulsory and post-compulsory education professionals to work together.

Let’s begin with ’People’; after all, what’s the purpose of an education system, if it’s not to benefit the learners at the heart of it?


In my research for both Lessons From Lockdown and Bubble Schools, which picks up the story of lockdown from September 2020 and tracks this through to the end of this academic year, one of the key themes and reasons for optimism is the evidence of a new relationship between teachers and parents.

In our focus groups and one-to-one interviews with teachers, school leaders and other education professionals, they all spoke of a new warmth in their relationship with parents.

It was clear there was a deeper understanding of the diversity of circumstances in which children and young people lived, and the recognition of a further opportunity to work more closely together.

Parents, for their part – many speaking as reluctant, conscripted home tutors – often talked of their admiration for teachers, as they grappled with some of the challenges that are the ordinary stuff of the classroom.

Parents also spoke of their challenges with subject knowledge, especially in their efforts to support older children in either the foothills or closing stages of GCSE or A level.

For some, this was a struggle, for others a chance to engage with learning, perhaps for the first time since their own school days.

This reveals a number of opportunities for all involved in post-16 learning. For starters,
can post-16 providers use the knowledge gaps revealed in home schooling, and the renewed exposure to learning, to motivate those that might not have considered adult education to do so – and in effect encourage a stronger culture of lifelong learning that more buy into?


Another oversimplification has been talk of school ‘closures’. School buildings might be closed, but teaching and learning has continued online. In Bubble Schools I refer to schools as being recast as virtual multi-site communities.

Anybody who has worked or studied in a multi-site school or college will be familiar with the challenges that comes with this – not least the spread and separation of staff.

However, some parts of the education sector are used to this and some of the richest experience of this kind of distributed, multi-site, blended provision rests in areas like adult and community learning, and in organisations like the Open University.

A strong message from the research carried out for Lessons From Lockdown is that many schools are determined to retain and build on some of the key strategies and methodologies developed, and sometimes forced upon them, during the disruption wrought by the virus.

Again, this opens up various questions, particularly as to whether there can be more collaboration across the education phases – especially where community and further education providers are further along the line in providing blended provision. Might they be well placed to support and combine their resources with those in the school and pre-school phases to create an education system that truly supports lifelong learning?


This leads nicely to my third and final point: the purpose of education. COVID-19 has caused us to reflect on the purpose of schooling and, specifically, of schools.

My research for both Lessons From Lockdown and Bubble Schools suggests a new recognition of the multiple purposes of schooling – teaching and educating, yes, but far more than this: school’s a vital space for children and young people to develop their social skills and self-confidence, it supports the day-to-day employment of parents, and acts as a community hub for parents, thereby enabling the development of the kind of personal resilience and support networks that are vital for parental, family and community wellbeing.

But lockdown poses much broader questions about the purpose of education itself, questions that in some sense those involved in the development and delivery of non-vocational and non-accredited courses, have spent a professional lifetime addressing.

One such question concerns the lack of genuine breadth in the school curriculum, which many believe is increasingly focused only on academic subjects, over assessed and based, typically, on a single mode of examination, the GCSE.

This, in turn, produces a curriculum that is insufficiently focused on, or supportive of, the vocational (or professional) domain; the work-related curriculum remains one onto which far too many young people fall, rather than one they positively opt into with the right knowledge and support.

Further, the school curriculum, and the National Curriculum, around which it is constructed, is insufficiently concerned with the personal and social development of young people, as individuals, as social beings and as citizens, at least in the stated curriculum, where PSHE and Citizenship Education usually have no more than a marginal place, at best.

Some of these issues talk directly to the expertise of those in post-compulsory settings; moreover, they demand that the long overdue discussion about educational purpose is an all-sector one, not one reserved for those in schools, or those in any other setting.

Skills for Jobs: a chink of light or a lack of ambition?

Given the recent publication of a new Skills for Jobs White Paper focused on post compulsory provision that the government claims will “revolutionise post-16 education, reshape the training landscape and help the nation build back better” (DFE, 2021), the hope ought to be that these and other reforms will be even more ambitious.

Skills for jobs? Yes. But, with employment likely to be less stable, work playing a lesser role in the lives of many (if not all) and careers increasingly fluid and multiple, education – compulsory and post-compulsory – needs to be for much, much more than just the workplace.

Children entering Reception Class this autumn will need to be prepared for a world that is ever-changing; they will need a new agility and adaptability, they will find their careers in industries that don’t yet exist, and they will need to engage in learning as a lifelong, life-wide project.

This promises a transformation in the purpose and form of statutory schooling; those in the post-compulsory phase may be best placed to offer the guidance and support that their school-based colleagues will surely both need and welcome.

Catch-up, recovery and the ‘water-cooler moments of childhood’

Amongst COVID-19’s many impacts, one of the most profound has been the way in which the pandemic has caused us to re-evaluate the role of schools, and to concede that this is, and must be, more than narrowly educational. Schools facilitate the social coming together of young people and thereby are vital in supporting their wellbeing and personal development, act as community hubs, enable parents to participate in the workforce, while offering respite from full-time parenting itself, and ‘teach’ far, far more than those subjects that have been accorded a place on the timetable.

In this post, I want to explore the implications of this realisation for educational professionals, especially those with an interest in citizenship education, the wider social curriculum and agendas around the pastoral care and wellbeing of young people.

Attainment, exclusion and the standards agenda

Ensuring that young people move on from the statutory years of schooling with the grades that they need to access the next stage of their educational, employment and broader life journey is a vital function of schooling but there is a feeling that a crusade which began as an attempt to address significant underachievement system-wide thirty years ago may have had a range of unintended consequences: emaciating the primary curriculum in the drive to address concerns about literacy and numeracy, turning secondary schools into exam factories, negatively impacting children’s (and sometimes parents’) mental health, demanding that all manner of creative, technical, social and investigative subjects sell their soul (and their pedagogy) to win a seat at the GCSE table, narrowing the educational experience of young people in the process, turning vocational courses into something that young people fall onto after academic ‘failure’ rather than professional programmes that they positively opt into, and casting the social curriculum, and Citizenship Education, to the side-lines, more often than not tucked in with the register at the start of the day, if it features at all.

All the meantime, as I outline in my new book Lessons from Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19, these drivers have unwittingly contributed to the creation of an excluded hardcore; this group are as much a product of what I describe as an attainment-first culture as those with clutches of top grades. As I have remarked on many occasions and in many settings, the more successful we are with the 60, 70, 80% of young people, the more excluded the 40, 30, 20% become. And when this underachievement is patterned by the intersections of social class, ethnicity, residence and multiple other differentiations, we have a problem not just of education but of citizenship. “Closing the gap” may remain the objective of school leaders, teachers and policymakers alike (and we now know that this is vital if we are to live in a cohesive and just society), but the gap itself is a consequence of a system that bakes-in the exclusion of the few as the unintended price of the relative success of the many.

In this context, one positive outcome of this awful pandemic might be that the longstanding denial of the impact of poverty and social exclusion on educational attainment – portrayed by ministers of all persuasions as an excuse rather than an explanation – no longer holds. That some children have greater barriers to overcome before learning can commence, especially in an increasingly online world, is no longer a matter for debate, while the challenges of those education professionals who work with these young people are plain for all too see. The pandemic has not created this situation, but it has rendered it visible and, for many, it has accentuated the divide.

Beyond curriculum catch-up

In this context, to focus simply, as pundits and politicians largely have until recent weeks, on ‘lost’ learning is to miss the point. For all of the concern about curriculum ‘catch-up’, we have the means to address this. Indeed, the attainment-first culture has given us some of these strategies: the booster class, the crammer college, the subject specific tutor, the pre-exam revision class, even the re-take year, as recently advocated by the Education Policy Institute. But young people have missed far more than curriculum coverage during lockdown and, again, those in the most disadvantaged or otherwise challenging settings have often suffered the greatest losses; if I am not talking about the formal, taught curriculum, what am I referring to?

A gap in the coverage of a specific element of the National Curriculum at, say, Key Stage 2 or in a GCSE or A level specification is at least identifiable and quantifiable, but figuring out how a six-year old might make up for a year’s missed playdates or how a fourteen-year old might recover the kind of social development that flows from a year of corridor and staircase jostling and school yard banter is much harder to quantify and, therefore, address.

The water-cooler moments of childhood

I call these events and experiences – events and experiences that are so vital in the development of character, resilience and self-esteem – the water-cooler moments of childhood. Granted the phraseology is occupationally limited and middle class, but this is exactly the kind of thing that Zoom-fatigued and keyboard-weary adults tell us that they are missing too: the unscheduled, unscripted conversations of the lunch queue, the car park, the walk from the station and, of course, the water-cooler and the coffee machine.

I do not know the answer to the questions that I am posing. How one identifies and addresses these gaps is far more challenging, and no less important, than addressing curriculum deficits and it is vital that policymakers, educational professionals and educational researchers recognise this. But, the belated acknowledgement that social recovery is as important, perhaps more important, than gaps in subject knowledge does shine a light on something that as citizenship educators we can respond to: the intrinsically social nature of schooling.

The intrinsically social nature of schooling

During the first third of the twentieth century, the way that employees were organised and managed in the workplace (or in most workplaces) went through a quiet revolution. The ‘hard’ division of labour of scientific management (epitomised in the noisy and isolating ‘Fordism’ of the car production line) increasingly gave way to processes and strategies that acknowledged and built on the reality of humans as social and pro-social beings, articulated initially through a body of practice referred to as the human relations school. Moreover, as the twentieth century progressed, it became obvious that not only was it smart for business leaders to utilise the social skills of workers in designing production and administration processes, but that work had a vital social purpose for employees and their communities, whatever its productive output. Work was a part of the social fabric of life. As the so-called smoke-stack industries of western economies wound down their activities, they left workless communities bereft of purpose and identity, and the arenas that so often brought them together, workplaces.

Something similar is true of schools. COVID-19 has underlined that, whatever the merits of the dash for grades identified in earlier, and whatever the curricular loss of lockdown, the social purpose of the school is as important as its pedagogical role. Children don’t just collect knowledge and grades as they progress through school, they develop as individuals and, critically, as citizens. Moreover, as schools have become more and more effective and efficient at delivering learning to remote learners across digital platforms – a point that I pick up in the forthcoming sequel to Lessons from Lockdown, Bubble Schools: the long road from lockdown – attention has rightly turned to the social deficits of an entirely online existence, to the mental and physical health of young people, and to the learning that rarely features (or features sufficiently) on the timetable, the learning that derives from the multiple unscripted interactions of a school day, the watercooler moments of childhood.

And for those in school at present, the watercooler is not what it was, with children necessarily operating in much controlled settings, group work largely off limits, one-way corridors displaying the kind of order that, as teachers and school leaders, we once dreamed of, and whole school break and lunchtimes – for many – a thing of the past.

Post-pandemic, here is both the challenge and the opportunity for citizenship educators, and all concerned with the wider social curriculum. On the one hand, how, in-school, do we rebuild the kind of collaborative pedagogies and recreate the kind of social spaces that enable young people to practice and develop all manner of social skills? On the other, especially amongst those who have enjoyed and thrived on the autonomy of learning on line, how do we remake the case for on-site learning, especially when their memories of it might not have been great? In all of this the social curriculum, and the skills, knowledge and expertise of those engaged in its delivery, ought to take on the importance and profile that it should always have had. Whether it does or not will be critical in shaping the blended schooling of the post-pandemic era.

Schooling beyond lockdown

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.

Schooling the Pandemic

The educational impacts of the pandemic

Much of the debate about the educational impact of COVID-19 has rightly focused on the differential impact of the virus, especially on those children and young people from black and minority ethnic communities, on those who are disadvantaged and on those who are otherwise deemed ‘vulnerable’.

A second set of discussions has concentrated on the pedagogies of the pandemic – for instance, the loss of collaborative work in socially spaced classrooms, the re-emergence of teacher assessment in light of the cancellation of written examination papers for a second year, and the emergence of blended and online learning. As the potential of some of these innovations is becoming clear, attention is turning to how these and other strategies might be embraced in the longer term.

A third theme has been around the comparative concerns about curriculum ‘catch-up’ and psychological ‘recovery’. To reflect on the social impact of the pandemic on child development is not to diminish the issue of lost learning, although it often feels that this is the way that the debate is being framed.

A fourth, and more nuanced area is an assessment of the outliers of lockdown: those young people who have thrived during lockdown, those who have enjoyed, and benefitted from, the autonomy of learning beyond the school gates, and those who find themselves reflecting on the efficiency of schooling, not because they are behind in their learning but because they are ahead.

And this has been amongst the factors spurring a fifth debate around the comparative efficacy of school and home-based learning; whatever the outcome of this discourse, it is likely that the future is blended, and that home-schooling is likely to be a part of the new mainstream, even if it does not quite constitute the new normal. And this, in turn, takes us back to issues of inequality, cultural capital and digital access; or to locate this in what might be considered a Fabian lexicon, the challenge of how one delivers a comprehensive education for all in a blended world, when the home circumstances of learners differ so widely, a challenge that for me has never been adequately addressed by those, often on the left, who, following Illich, want to de-school society.

The multiple purposes of schooling

Alongside these themes, lockdown has caused us to reflect on the multiple purposes of schooling – not just its educational role but its vital function in the social development of young people and its centrality in supporting the participation of parents in employment; should not schools gain credit for their roles in these respects, as well as the educational performance of their students? Just as employment has impacts far wider than those deemed ‘economic’ – notably in respect of wellbeing, the opportunity for sociability and self-esteem – schooling has many functions beyond the narrowly educational, not that you’d know it in our culture of tests, targets and tables. This isn’t to play down the core educative purpose of schooling – it would be disingenuous for an educationalist to do so – but it is to recognise the full value of schooling and the wider contribution of all who work in education not just to learning but to society.

These are among the themes that I explore in my new book, Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 which has recently been published by Routledge. In it, I track the early experience of lockdown through to the start of the current academic year. In its upcoming sequel: Bubble Schools: the long road from lockdown, due towards the close of this year, I seek to capture and curate the experience of the pandemic through to August 2021. Both books do so through the voices of those at the thick end of the action – pupils, parents and educational professionals – with both based on a mix of extended conversations, face-to-face interviews and focus group discussions.

The making of educational policy

In closing, though, I want to pose a different set of questions, a set that should be of concern to all with an interest in education, and to all Fabians, a set of questions that has been an obsession of mine since qualifying as a teacher and taking my first tentative steps into the classroom and staffroom in September 1987: how we develop and deliver educational policy.

Even when one acknowledges that these are unprecedented times, and this an unprecedented pandemic, the management of the government’s policy response to it, in educational terms, has been shambolic; to give but a few examples: the chaotic on-off ‘re-opening’ of schools in June 2020, the ongoing issues around support for children entitled to free school meals, including the recent discussion about the paltry portions in at least some of the ill-named ‘hampers’ distributed to our most disadvantaged families, the 2020 grading crisis and the grudging U-turn over the primacy of the Centre Assessed Grading process, the determination to persist with written papers and standard examinations against a backdrop of local lockdowns, tiers and ‘bubbles’ during the 2020 Autumn Term, ahead of the U-turn on this in January 2021, the evident absence of a ‘Plan B’ to accommodate this possibility, as the Secretary of State had claimed to be in place throughout the Autumn, with conversations with Ofqual on the strategy to be adopted only being initiated almost two weeks after the announcement that written papers would not take place, the failure to address the digital exclusion of those from the poorest homes during the relative ‘downtime’ during lockdowns one and two, the Department for Education threat to ‘send in the lawyers’ against secondary schools, trusts and local authorities that had proposed switching to blended learning in the final week before the Christmas break, before instructing all schools to close and switch to blended learning a day into the Spring Term, and finally, the announcement of this decision, barely 36 hours after the PM had spoken of the safety of schools on The Andrew Marr Show, asserting that schools would not close.

Moreover, and more galling, was the absence from the policy table of key stakeholders at key points in the process, the paucity of the debate around issues such as assessment and curriculum ‘catch-up’, and the constant restatement of essentially ideologically but unresearched positions, for instance on the supremacy of unseen papers as a mode of examination assessment and the subjectivity of teacher assessment, dutifully and disappointedly repeated by leaders at Ofsted and Ofqual, and any Minister available to occupy a TV or radio interview slot or pen a newspaper column. To allow these proclamations to go unchallenged is to accept that schooling after the crisis will be exactly as it was beforehand; that would be to cast aside an important and potentially positive educational legacy of this terrible period: that system-shocks such as that provided by the pandemic can drive creativity and innovation. We must, as progressives, be brave enough to allow them to.

Big change, though, needs levels of trust and partnership that recent ministerial and departmental practice has done nothing to enhance. In fact, it is reasonable to surmise that relations between the profession and the Department for Education and its agencies are at an all-time low; the damage resulting from the bungling, low trust culture of recent months is likely to take years to repair, and will need to be a priority for the next Secretary of State for Education. But in the longer run we need a wider re-appraisal of how policymaking and policy implementation takes place. The forced implementation of inoperable strategies dreamed up by a Department, a set of agencies and a Ministerial ‘SPAD-ocracy’ far too low on (if not completely devoid of) any experience of how schools operate on a day-to-day basis, never mind in mid-lockdown, is no way to effect change of any form, or at any time.

Instead, we need an approach to educational policymaking that is inclusive and informed – inclusive in that policymaking is generated by a culture that is high trust, collaborative and engaging of stakeholders on the ground; informed in that it is rooted in the experience of pupils, parents and educational professionals over the past ten months, the work of the educational research community, and a newly reconstituted expert body focused on pedagogy, the curriculum and its assessment, one that brings together the biggest brains in, and the finest exponents of, curricular practice to fill the void that has existed since Michael Gove first expressed his long-held disdain for experts by abolishing the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency almost a decade ago – one of his first acts as Education Secretary.

Right now, we seem some distance from this inclusive, informed, collaborative, high trust Nirvana, but the message is that, as Fabians, we need to focus as much in the methodology of our policymaking as its content. In practical terms, this means having the confidence to share and mould our proposals with researchers, professionals and service users, resisting the urge to impose our preferred solutions (however longstanding our commitment to these) when they caution that we might need to go about our business differently. We might not achieve all of policy objectives, but those that we do put in place will sustain for the long term with the buy-in of those on who they impact most: that’s not just better policymaking, it’s good news for an educational community driven to distraction by reforms that it knows will not work, and it’s better for our politics too.

Catch-up, recovery and the future of schooling

Another day, another u-turn

On the evening of 30 December, it was confirmed that secondary school pupils (other than those in the final year of examined courses), the children of key workers and those deemed vulnerable, would not return to their studies until January 18, at the earliest. Perhaps more surprisingly, primary school children in what might be defined as ‘Tier 4 Plus’ areas would also need to stay at home. This from a government led by a Prime Minister who had been unequivocal in the build up to the preceding Autumn term: in any further lockdown, “schools will be the last to close and the first to open”. But that was before the Prime Minister’s late evening announcement on Monday 5 January that all schools in England would close until after the February half term break, at the earliest.

The track to the postponement of the post-Christmas reopening of schools had followed a pattern established across the preceding nine months or so. First a denial that it would be necessary (allied to dire warnings of the consequences of doing so), then a gradual slippage of position – usually preceded by the actions of governments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh – followed by a belated, inevitable about-turn, driven certainly on this occasion by the science, much less so by any kind of understanding of human motivation, or the kind of time lines that schools and families need to prepare for such changes.

While we can all appreciate the challenge of governing in the circumstances of a pandemic, the charge list against the government is long: the calamitous and ultimately partial ‘would they-wouldn’t they?’ school re-openings back in June; the examination marking fiasco in August when teacher assessment was first derided and then called forth as the saviour of the day, as it has been again for 2021; the sudden switch from ‘eat out to help out’ to ‘drink up and get out’; the castigation of those suggesting the need for ‘circuit-breakers’ before belatedly putting these in place. And of course, weeks later and weeks late, the promise of Christmas, rescinded only after the nation’s freezers and larders had been filled. Finally, after individual schools, multi-academy trusts and local authorities had been threatened with legal action for proposing a switch to blended learning in the week running up to Christmas, the concession that schooling would again become a blended experience for most pupils, possibly for the remainder of the academic year.

This belated decision to close schools for the majority of children and young people again throws into sharp relief the range of educational conundrums that have always been endemic to our schooling system, and the multiple roles that it performs, but which the pandemic has stripped bear. These conundrums are the core concerns of my new book, Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of Covid-19, which takes its title from my RSA long read posted in early lockdown and is based on a series of focus group, face-to-face and telephone conversations with over one hundred pupils, parents and professionals.

The downside of targets, tests and tables

Educational policy priorities of the past 25 years have given scarce attention to the diversity of the roles our schools perform. Instead, they point to a narrow (and narrowly educational) purpose articulated through a performance culture based on of tests, targets and tables. The origins of such a culture lie in the pervasive and persistent educational underachievement of disadvantaged groups that stretches back to the beginnings of our post-war schooling system and in the relatively late realisation that an educated society is an effective and efficient one.

This target-focused culture, while it has seen significant growth in both achievement and participation over the past three decades, nonetheless stands accused of a range of increasingly corrosive flaws. These include championing academic learning over all other forms, accepting that that the exclusion of some is near inevitable and persistently failing to address this, and marginalising the social function of schooling and the importance of developing qualities such as enterprise, resilience and self-confidence. Further, the focus on a set of narrowly academic targets is blamed for actively contributing to the failure to address the needs of those children facing the greatest learning and socio-economic challenges, while accentuating the pressure on young people to succeed to the point that, according to critics, it may be damaging to the mental health of all.

Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on these and other persistent shortcomings; while it did not create what some now see as a mental health crisis amongst the young or the educational underachievement of our poorest communities, it has exposed these tensions and inequalities as never before (rendering them politically undeniable in the process) and is likely to have accentuated these issues. The sharp end of poverty has a newly visible edge.

Beyond learning: the multiple purposes of schooling

The pandemic has done more, than simply shine a light on the flawed strategies employed to address these inequities, exposing our system’s longest standing challenges and the weaknesses of the ‘solutions’ subsequently applied. It has also reminded us of the multiple functions of schooling: not just to ‘educate’ (howsoever defined) but also to nurture and to develop children as social beings; not just to enable the participation of parents in the workforce but also to provide hubs through which communities are fostered, whether through periodic school events, the daily discussions around the school gate or the chilliness of Saturday morning football.

Whatever the challenges of curriculum ‘catch-up’ (and this is not to deny the importance of this), those pertaining to the psychological recovery of young people and their communities are likely to be far more complex and varied, intensely personal and sometimes barely visible in their nature. Gaps in a defined and highly structured, curriculum in say maths, or physics, or geography can be identified and – albeit through smart, expensive and labour-intensive interventions – addressed. The ‘gap’ left by what may be on the cusp of becoming 12 months of missed play dates for primary school children, or being unable to associate freely with teenage friends, as had been the experience of many in the secondary phase, are much less tangible but, in terms of the mental and social wellbeing of young people, are at least as important. Beyond the pandemic, addressing these much less visible but much more pernicious gaps is a key challenge for educators around the world. One thing is for sure: a bit of extra tutoring or a clutch of booster classes will not fix this.

Networks for change

Here, the RSA, the various education networks that it has spawned, and other clusters of progressive educators have much to build on. England’s new inspection framework, launched in September 2019, gave a new credence to the wellbeing of both children and school staff with Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, calling for a shift away from “teaching to the test” and a reassertion of the “purpose of education”. These themes have been central to the RSA’s educational work over the past decade as articulated in a plethora of reports (recent examples include Schools without Walls and Arts-Rich Schools) and have also featured strongly in the discussions and work of teachers, heads, system leaders and those representing them. The tonal change at the school inspectorate, and its evidently growing concern for both student and staff wellbeing, suggests that this coalition of voices was beginning to make itself heard in high places before the emergence of the virus. But long-entrenched systems do not move lightly on their feet; this requires the kind of system-shock that the pandemic is now delivering.

For this reason, towards the close of the focus group and interview-based discussions that have provided the data for both Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 and its sequel, due to be published later in the year, we posed one key question to participants: what can’t you wait to get back to, and what can’t you wait to leave behind? This question ought to be the focus of every system and school leader and all concerned with the nature of learning in the post-pandemic world in the months and years ahead, but change is never easy. As we explore it, we might want to consider a range of related challenges:

1. How do we track, capture and learn from the experiences of those who constitute the Covid-19 generation? In the book we propose a major longitudinal study focusing on key year groups.

2. How do we begin to build a long-term recovery curriculum for each of the Covid-19 year groups 3. that support their learning for as long as they remain in formal education? We suggest the creation of a new qualifications and curriculum body to bring together the best curriculum thinkers and to begin working now.

3. How do we better acknowledge the multiple, other functions of schooling that we have merely hinted at here? In the Google era and with the passing of the age of deference, mere instruction has slipped way down the list.

4. How do we re-introduce the ‘social’ dimension of schooling, such that we can again utilise pedagogies that are collaborative at their core?

5. How do we build on the new technological literacies forced on many of us by the pandemic, and resist the urge to just ‘put the tablets back in the cupboard’?

6. How do we build on the new relationships between the home and the school that the pandemic has, in places, helped us to build and how might these enable us to build new strategies to enhance inclusion and widen participation.

Change in highly structured settings

As I have argued for over two decades, highly structured systems (or ‘total institutions’ as the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman termed them over 50 years ago) tend to reproduce themselves over time and are remarkably resilient of change.

The military, hospitals, prisons, our public service bureaucracies and, of course, schools, are such institutions. Their tendency is to maximise the feeling of change while minimising its impact. How else might we explain why generations of educational reform have delivered a curriculum that still mirrors that offered in the post-war schools of three-quarters of a century ago? Why else, I asked in a recent blog produced for NACE (the National Association for Able Children in Education), might we have overseen the building of a swathe of new schools at the turn of this century constructed on the exact template of their predecessors constructed in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s? Not so much ‘Building Schools for the Future’, as the programme was branded, as for the past. To reiterate, highly structured organisations such as schools (and there is no doubting the need for such organisations) are remarkably resilient to change, in spite of appearing to be at its epicentre.

A game-changer?

The pandemic is a potential game-changer in this regard and the key questions are straightforward, even if the answers are far from simple; where do we want (and need) our education systems to go from here and how are we going to get there? Lockdown and all that has flowed from it has revealed the inequalities of outcome endemic in our pre-pandemic approach to schooling once and for all. For progressives, the challenge is to address how we can rebuild our schools, our pedagogies and practises, in a way that no longer tolerates such inequities.

Move quickly, and we might just have Ofsted on board. Miss the chance, ignore the lessons from lockdown, and the pressure to ‘get back to normal’ will surely grow; that would be a terrible legacy from this most terrible of illnesses.

Lessons from Lockdown: key challenges in supporting the needs of able learners

Headline writers, media pundits, parents and politicians may not agree on many things but on one aspect of lockdown they are united: the closure of schools is the lockdown strategy of last resort. Notwithstanding the growth in home schooling, evidence of a new relationship between the home and the school, and a new embrace for online pedagogies, few in education would disagree. However, the assumptions that underpin this unity need to be unpicked, and the experience of learners explored, if we are to learn some of the most important lessons of lockdown.

Based on conversations with over one hundred pupils, parents and professionals in special, primary and secondary schools, my new book, Lessons from Lockdown: the Educational Legacy of COVID-19, is an attempt to capture these experiences, and the emergent reality is much more nuanced than the headlines suggest. In respect of supporting able students, I identify here three themes that I believe are especially pertinent and elaborate on these below.

1. The need for curriculum catch-up varies enormously within and between schools, and between individual students

Behind the widespread panic about school closures – whether that be close to total, as was experienced in the spring and summer or ‘bubble by bubble’ as it has been since September – lies the assumption that children have been ‘missing out’ and missing out, in particular, on curriculum content. This fear of missing out – and the consequent need to ‘catch-up’ – sits at the heart of many media headlines and politicians’ pronouncements. There can be no doubt that some children have missed out enormously, and that the socio-economically disadvantaged and those living in challenging domestic circumstances have suffered most. Nor can it be denied that those in examination cohorts have had to navigate their courses through a choppy and much varied landscape, and here the variability of experience is the critical issue. Since the stuttering re-openings of first June and then September, no two schools in the same locality have had the same route from lockdown. But claims of a universal educational Armageddon are wide of the mark. In this mix, and in almost every setting, some young people have prospered: the children who have blossomed as a result of the previously scarce family time afforded to them, those who have valued the freedom of home-learning, those who have enjoyed pushing on through an examination specification at their own speed and have consequently gained ground. In this regard the re-introduction to school of these ‘lockdown-thrivers’, as I identify them in Lessons From Lockdown, is not without its challenges, especially when the ‘disaffected-able’ form a part of this cohort.

Against this background, the smartest ‘catch-up’ strategies have started with diagnosis of need, not its presumption, and proceeded to offer highly personalised support that is particular to the learner, the group and the bubble. This, of course, is strongest when it is informed by exactly the methodologies modelled by those working either with the most able or those facing particular learning challenges.

2. The social purpose of schooling has been underlined as never before

Whatever the challenges of curriculum ‘catch-up’, what might be termed social catch-up is far more complex. But, if this challenge is not addressed, it will feed through into reduced wellbeing and lower educational attainment. The reason for this is straightforward: inclusion is not the poor relation of attainment; rather, and especially for those young people at either end of ability and motivational ranges, it is the pre-requisite for educational success, howsoever measured. Provided that we have the resources (a pretty big ‘provided’), we have the skills and the knowledge, especially within networks such as that provided by the NACE community, to advise on and deliver curriculum catch-up: booster classes, revision modules, targeted interventions, personal study plans and so on. Not so, social catch-up: how do you address the gaps left by virtually a year without play dates for the seven-year-old, or by several months of those evenings and weekends usually spent with friends, often not really doing anything, as a teenager?

In short, whatever the educational purpose of schools, their social (not to mention the socio-economic) purpose has been underlined by the pandemic, and with it the vital contribution that this makes to the development of the young. It may be time to give far more status to the social purpose of schools and to appraise their success against a much broader scorecard. At risk of repetition, wellbeing is not a nicety to be considered after good grades have been assured; it is the foundation block on which achievement rests.

3. The challenge lies not in getting back to where we were, but to deciding where we want (and need) to go

Towards the close of our focus group and interview-based discussions, I posed one key question: what can’t you wait to get back to, and what can’t you wait to leave behind? Highly structured systems (or ‘total institutions’ as Erving Goffman termed them over fifty years ago) tend to reproduce themselves over time and are remarkably resilient of change. The military, hospitals, prisons, our public service bureaucracies and, of course, schools, are such institutions. Their tendency is to maximise the feeling of change while minimising its impact. How else might we explain why generations of educational reform have delivered a curriculum that still mirrors that offered in the post-war schools of three-quarters of a century ago? Why else might we have overseen the building of a swathe of new schools at the turn of this century constructed on the exact template of their predecessors? Highly structured organisations such as schools (and there is no doubting the need for such structure) usually change only as the result of a profound system shock. The pandemic has provided just such a shock; so, the question is straightforward, even if the answer is far from simple: where do we want and need to go from here, and how are we going to get there?

Schooling will be different after all of this. As a profession, and as a community of interest – one particularly committed to identifying, supporting and unlocking potential in able children – we need to ensure that we work with colleagues, and their specific communities of interest, to shape the schooling of the future. If we don’t, it will surely be done for us, and to us (again).

Schools as the creators of lifelong, life wide learners

As part of the annual Festival of Learning, I recently had the opportunity to contribute, as a panelist, to an excellent Workers’ Educational Association webinar involving over 300 participants, drawn mainly from the spheres of adult and community learning, vocational training, lifelong learning and Further Education and entitled The Ages of Learning.

Each of us offered a perspective on the challenges of building, post pandemic, a wider culture of learning, and I offered the first reflection – on how schools might play a role in building such a culture. Here are the twelve observations that I offered in my seven minute time slot:

1. Those entering Reception Class this year will find their careers in industries that don’t yet exist, producing goods and services not yet invented, serving needs we don’t (yet) know we have

2. Schooling is a part of our lifelong learning journey, not a pre-cursor to it

3. If the social and community functions of schooling are downplayed, learning suffers

4.Good grades are important but wholly insufficient

5. Ten GCSEs amounts to ten variations on a theme, not educational breadth

6. The curriculum is a statement of what we believe is sufficiently important to pass on to the next generation

7. The obsession with “coverage and catch-up” can inhibit the development of a culture of learning and the proper concern for wellbeing

8. Developing a love of learning and the capacity to learn, unlearn and relearn is vital

9. Learning in adulthood has to build on schooling, not simply act as a corrective to it

10. The education-employment “work hard and get on” contract must be urgently revisited

11. Our schools are descended from industrial models of organisation, rather than grown from bespoke learner needs; what kind of system might we create if we started with learner need?

12. We need to shift our focus from ‘attainment-first’ to ‘inclusion-first’, if we are to widen participation and engage all learners for the long term

Feedback welcome, both from those concerned with education during the statutory school years and those who focus on working with adult learners, of various ages, needs and motivations, in a variety of settings.

Capturing the lessons of lockdown

In this second post originally written for the Freedom To Teach site from Collins Educational, I draw on a core theme in my book, Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19, to argue that high quality educational research, including a major longitudinal study – or a suite of such studies – has to be part of the response of educationalists and researchers to the pandemic, especially if we are to capture the rich detail and the differently nuanced ways in which the pandemic has been experienced by pupils, parents and professionals.

Lockdown is likely to have a profound impact on our education system and, in particular, on how we think about and organise schooling. However, in the rush to get ‘back to normal’, we are in danger of ignoring the lessons of the pandemic: lessons about how children and young people learn; about how we most effectively assess this learning; about how teachers teach and the technologies that they use; about the social importance of schooling; and about how we successfully engage parents in the process of their children’s education.

The research for my forthcoming book, Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 (Routledge, 2021), which involved over one hundred professionals, policy influencers, parents and pupils, reveals the range and variety of lockdown experiences and belies the simple binaries that continue to typify media coverage. Certainly, there were those for whom lockdown was challenging at every turn: children for whom school is a daily refuge from domestic violence, family discord, cramped housing and profound, unremitting poverty. There were others for whom the release from the institutionalisation of regular schooling brought a new freedom, an autonomy in learning and an opportunity to flourish. But for most, the experience was as variable as schooling itself can be. Thus, while I propose in the book a typology of ‘lockdown strugglers’, ‘lockdown survivors’ and ‘lockdown thrivers’, the truth is that many young people moved back and forward between these experiences as lockdown progressed. In short, schooling in lockdown did not deliver a single experience to all young people, or a consistent experience to most.

For parents, the experience of supporting home learning was similarly diverse: for many, it brought a new empathy for teachers, and all who work in schools, as they negotiated the challenges of mastering both new knowledge and new technology, motivating sometimes reluctant learners and managing a range of submission demands. For others, it opened up home-schooling, post lockdown, as a serious option – one hitherto unconsidered. For some, where time at home was enforced on whole families, lockdown allowed for the development and deepening of relationships, something that had sometimes been neglected in the cut and thrust of the daily pre-lockdown rat-race. And yet for others, the personal, social and economic challenges barely allowed home learning to take place. Tellingly, the National Centre for Domestic Violence reminded us that “abusers always work from home”. In this respect, there can be little doubt that, while lockdown didn’t cause many of the disparities and inequalities that it revealed, it certainly deepened those that already existed.

And for teachers and school leaders the rule book for day-to-day schooling was put to one side, with teachers seeking to master what was, for many, a new world of online learning and Zoom meetings, and Heads reinventing themselves as logistics managers, adding one-way systems, ‘bubbles’ and the paraphernalia of lockdown and partially open schooling to the already bulging compendium of school leadership. Indeed, it is more plausible to think of lockdown as consisting of several phases, rather than of a single period.

Thus, the lessons from lockdown are multiple and varied, even within single classrooms and staffrooms, and particular school communities. If we are to capture these, we need to think urgently about how they are captured, and in the here and now, rather than with the benefit, distortions and nostalgia of hindsight. For this reason, the Department for Education needs, as a matter of priority, to commission a major longitudinal study that tracks the impact of lockdown on current teaching and learning cohorts. In particular, such a study could track the impact of lockdown on the various classes of 2020 and 2021: those entering reception and Year 1; those entering the junior years; those starting secondary school and those studying for and sitting (or not sitting) GCSEs and A levels; those progressing to further and higher education; and those entering teacher education programmes and starting out on their teaching careers. The UK is blessed with a vibrant and active education research community and infrastructure and the cohorts are clearly identifiable and, seemingly unlike the virus, trackable.

Following these children, young people and adults into their early careers, and the current cohort of emergent teachers into middle and senior leadership roles would allow us to genuinely understand the impact of the virus, to build on the opportunities for re-thinking and reforming our schooling system, and to take swift mediating action where negative impacts emerge or appear at risk of doing so. Moreover, the insights from such a study might help to dissuade us from dashing ‘back to normal’ when the wiser option is a proper research-informed consideration of what the new educational normal needs to be, and what the post-lockdown schooling landscape needs to look like.

Classrooms, boardrooms and staffrooms

For nine years, between 2001 and 2010, I had the privilege to lead the Citizenship Foundation, one of the pre-eminent voices in the movement to establish Citizenship Education in the National Curriculum in English schools. The Foundation was one of several founding partners who together established the Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT), the membership body for those who continue to deliver this key, but too often ignored, curriculum entitlement. In an article in the issue 52 of the ACT journal, Teaching Citizenship, published in November 2020, I explore the key role that Citizenship educators, and others across the wider social curriculum, need to play if we are to effectively renew our schooling system in light of the pandemic. An extended version of the article, Classrooms, Boardrooms and Staffrooms: post pandemic landscapes for citizenship education and citizenship educators, is reproduced below.


Fifteen or so years ago, with Citizenship then a relatively new Foundation Subject of the National Curriculum in secondary schools, Barry Dufour and I, with the support of colleagues at what was then the Citizenship Foundation (and is now Young Citizens) developed the concept of the Citizenship-rich school, giving expression to this in our edited collection, Developing Citizens: a comprehensive introduction to citizenship education in the secondary school (2006) and in a range of practitioner focused journals, including Teaching Citizenship. In this article I set out why I believe that there is merit in revisiting the concept in light of the remaining challenges facing those of us in Citizenship Education, developments in what I would contend are the related fields of localism and governance, and through the opportunities (and need) for post pandemic educational reform.

The remaining challenge for Citizenship educators

With a chasm remaining in our society where political literacy should be, it seems to me that Citizenship Education is more needed than ever, but perhaps less visible in our schools than at any time since the subject’s addition to the National Curriculum in 2002. This had followed the publication of the first of three reports from independent advisory committees Chaired by Professor (later Sir) Bernard Crick. The first report, Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools (QCA, 1998), outlined the need for Citizenship Education during the years of statutory education, the second argued for such provision for those in Further Education and training, Citizenship for 16-19 Year Olds in Education and Training (FEFC, 2000), while the third, The New and the Old (Home Office, 2003) focused on the educational needs of newcomers to Britain, and those long-settled migrants seeking the formal status of British Citizenship.

At the heart of Crick’s model of Citizenship, especially in the inaugural schools-focused report, was a three-dimensional model that conceptualised Citizenship as being composed of a set of interrelated strands: social and moral responsibility, political literacy and community involvement. Amongst these, the focus on a model of citizenship that placed political literacy at its core was distinctive. It heralded a model not just of ‘active’ citizenship but of effective citizenship – a citizenship not simply marked out by kindness and care but one that sought to empower, give agency and transform. This wasn’t about earnest young people helping elders to cross a road (whether or not the latter wished to do so) or about digging their gardens (irrespective of whether they had requested such “random acts of kindness”); it was about individuals working together to shape society and it was about responding to a democratic deficit that remains as strong today as when Crick reported. Addressing such a deficit had been a lifetime’s work for Crick, whose earlier efforts had included the establishment of the Politics Association and authoring the seminal text, In Defence of Politics (1962). He was later, of course, to establish the Association for Citizenship Teaching itself.

Crick’s Legacy

Crick’s endeavours helped to spawn a series of further reports, and a number of related policy innovations, including the introduction of a Statutory Duty on schools to promote Community Cohesion, a foray into a prolonged debate about what has been termed a “Statement of British Values” (but which might better be thought of as a “British Statement of Values”) and, controversially, the launch of the PREVENT initiative. Five post-Crick reports are particularly notable: Sir Keith Ajegbo’s report, Diversity and Citizenship, which led to the addition of a fourth strand concerned with Diversity and Inclusion to Crick’s framework for Citizenship in the National Curriculum, Peter (Lord) Goldsmith’s Report, Citizenship: Our Common Bond (2007) and the report of the Commission on Integration and Commission, led by Darra Singh, Our Shared Future (2007), both of which focused on the notion of shared values as the connecting glue of any ‘lived’ model of Citizenship, and Learning through Life: Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, supported by NIACE and written by Tom Schuller and David Watson (NIACE, 2009), which focused on the need to enable adults (who had rarely benefited from any form of political education during their school years) to access Citizenship Education through Adult and Community Learning programmes. Finally, one of Crick’s shrewdest moves was to convince the Department for Education to commission the National Foundation for Educational Research to launch the Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study, led by Professor David Kerr, into the impact of the introduction of Citizenship Education in schools, and related initiatives. The CELS study as it has become known, produced a whole series of important reports and research summaries.

The point of this historical tour is to give a sense the sheer scale of activity in the Citizenship Education sphere that characterised the years between 1997 and 2010 and to draw on this work and subsequent activity – led by, amongst others, ACT, Young Citizens and the alliance formed by both organisations in 2009, Democratic Life – in revisiting the potential of the Citizenship-rich school as a concept for re-energising the Citizenship Education agenda and the broader social curriculum within which it sits. Moreover, my own work, over the past five years in the school governance arena and in exploring the links between educational provision and localism, has caused me to reflect on whether recent innovations in school governance, in part following my own reports, Who Governs Our Schools? Trends, Tensions and Opportunities (RSA, 2017) and A Place for Learning: putting learning at the heart of citizenship, civic identity and community life (RSA, 2016) may open up new conduits for developing new forms of Citizenship-rich schooling in the sort of post-pandemic landscape that I discuss in my latest book, Lessons from Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 (Routledge, 2021, forthcoming).

Revisiting the Citizenship-rich school

The concept of the Citizenship-rich school emerged to some degree because of the debate about the nature of Citizenship as a subject, an issue thrown into sharp focus by its inclusion, as just that, in the National Curriculum, a theme that I had explored in a pair of articles published in early editions of Teaching Citizenship, A Citizenship Manifesto for Every School (Vo.2, No.1; Breslin, 2002) and New Subject: New Type of Subject (Vol.4, No.2; Breslin, 2004). The first article explored the Manifesto idea which, as I recall, had emerged from a teacher workshop that I had led in Autumn 2001 in which we considered the diversity of citizenship learning experiences that young people might be exposed to as they worked their way through secondary education and through the newly statutory Citizenship curriculum in particular: opportunities to engage in charitable, community and enterprise projects, opportunities to seek election and represent their peers through various student voice conduits, visiting schemes, mock Parliament and mock trial projects and competitions, the study of different social movements in subjects such as History and Sociology, school-based volunteering initiatives, and so on. The problem with many of these opportunities, especially those with a participative dimension, was that they were (and are) sometimes dominated by a small group of students. Perhaps through a manifesto-based approach, schools could commit to delivering an entitlement – curricular and extra-curricular, within Citizenship classrooms and across the curriculum – for all secondary age students across years seven to eleven, delivering a genuinely experiential model of Citizenship Education to all young people.

The second article explored Citizenship as a subject, and a new kind of subject. In particular, its aim was to get away from the false “do you teach it as a distinct subject or do you ‘go’ cross-curricular” dichotomy that was prevalent at the time. At a teachers’ CPD seminar staged at the London office of the National Union of Teachers in early 2002, I recall one nationally profiled Head responding to my presentation with the comment “Tony, you can’t teach citizenship in forty-five minute lessons – you’ll bore the kids to death”. My response was quick and a little sharper than I intended: “Well, that’s never stopped us with Maths, English, History, Geography…” As Barry Dufour and I were later to argue in Developing Citizens, the choice is not between ‘subject’ or ‘cross-curricular’ approaches but how they are combined. As too many schools have found (but too few have acknowledged), cross-curricular approaches, as I remarked at a Select Committee hearing into the teaching of Citizenship Education (TSO, 2007), can quickly dissolve into no coverage at all: doing Citizenship everywhere can amount to doing it nowhere, but if Citizenship has a proper curricular home, evidenced by a place on the timetable (and usually that means more than adding the letter ‘C’ in the non-specialist delivery of PSHEE), it can flourish because of this anchorage point elsewhere in the curriculum, be this through the study of the Suffragettes in History, the consideration of Community in Geography or the use of voting data in Maths.

Citizenship Education in the classroom (and beyond)

This combination of subject-specific and cross-curricular delivery flourishes best in an environment that itself nurtures and models Citizenship in its day-to-day practice, while doing so alongside a clear and identifiable curriculum programme for the delivery of Citizenship.

Such an environment is provided by the Citizenship-rich school. In this kind of setting, there are multiple opportunities for student engagement and the expression of student voice, a variety of programmes that enable charitable endeavour and volunteering, an open environment that welcomes parental and community involvement, strong ties with this community and a well-resourced, visible, high status Citizenship curriculum, typically delivered by a specialist team.

Thus, the cliched binary between Citizenship Education being “caught or taught” is dissolved. In the Citizenship-rich school, Citizenship is both taught and caught, and the school is both transformed as a community and in the community. In shifting from a ‘cross-curricular theme’, a status that effectively cast Citizenship as less than a subject, pre-Crick (one of six appended, retrospectively, to the original National Curriculum), it promised to become more than a subject after Crick. In truth, in too many secondary schools, it remains a promise largely undelivered.

Citizenship in process in the Boardroom

The practice of local governance is a practice in engaged citizenship. Indeed, the relative loss of power amongst local governing boards in some Multi-Academy Trust and Federation settings and, in a minority of cases, their removal, is an issue that should concern all committed to localism and local democracy.

Nonetheless, across the UK, over 250,000 volunteer citizens continue to be engaged as school governors or academy trustees, with the majority embarking on the route to governance when their children are pupils at schools in their local communities. The engagement of governors in the appointment, support and appraisal of school leaders, the setting and approval of school budgets, the oversight of of arrangements for safeguarding and wellbeing, the sign-off of school improvement strategies and the framing of the values, ethos and strategic direction to which schools commit represent one of our society’s key conduits for citizen engagement and agency. Moreover, the opportunity to build bridges between school governance and other forms of student, staff and parent engagement has the potential to be both educative and empowering. Indeed, such bridge-building is vital if a school is to genuinely consider itself “Citizenship-rich”.

Why? Because to fail to do this is to exchange an ever-richer participation pathway along which individuals can progress, should they have the commitment to do so, with relative ease for a hierarchy of disconnected participation layers according different levels of agency and implied importance to those participating through different channels. In short, the risk is that governors make decisions, the Parent Teacher Association makes cakes, and the school council plays games. In healthy, Citizenship-rich communities, participation opportunities sit along multiple, interconnected participation continuums – less a ladder of participation (to use the phrase popular in the participation literature), more a scaffolding of engagement with multiple access points, and a Boardroom door that is open to inputs and presentations from actors across the school community, not least the children and young people for whom it exists.

Citizenship Educators in the staffroom

The original National Curriculum had effectively removed the social sciences from the curriculum at Key Stage 4. Although subjects such as Sociology, Government and Politics and Psychology survived (and often thrived) in the sixth form, a significant proportion involved in the delivery of the social sciences moved into Further Education. This both weakened the capacity of schools to deliver high quality and specialist PSHE – a decade before Crick’s report was commissioned – and changed the dynamics of many school staffrooms, because these social curriculum specialists had often played a key role in school staff communities, for instance as professional association representatives and staff governors.

That cohort of Citizenship Education specialists who have subsequently emerged to support the delivery of National Curriculum Citizenship – many of whom are ACT members and readers of this journal – are the natural successors to these earlier staffroom activists, and, certainly, the post pandemic school-scape needs an injection of the kind of political literacy that those leading on the social curriculum are especially likely to possess if the expertise of the staffroom is to have its proper place in a re-purposing of schooling that, as I outline in Lessons From Lockdown, is already underway.

Moreover, with the resurgence of agendas around safeguarding, wellbeing and inclusion, their underscoring in the inspection framework launched in September 2019 (Ofsted, 2019), and the rebalancing of the standards-inclusion nexus that this implies, those with an expertise in Citizenship Education and the social curriculum are well placed to make an informed and expert contribution to these debates, in leadership teams, staffrooms and school communities more broadly.

Citizenship Educators and post Pandemic Landscapes

COVID-19 has provided a system shock that has rocked a range of our key institutions, especially those that have a habit of reproducing themselves across generations, and schooling is just such an institution. As such, post pandemic schooling is likely to differ significantly from that on offer before the virus: modes of in-class delivery, parental engagement and digital enablement are changing in a range of ways, a number of which will endure in the long term. Blended learning is likely to become the norm, rather than a quirky outlet for the technologically-confident. Home schooling is revealing itself as an option to far more than previously, and the myth that schooling works for all has finally been exposed – amongst all the headlines of educational Armageddon and the ‘disaster’ of closing schools, the tale has sometimes been lost, that, for some students, the forced closure of schools may have revealed an alternative to mass schooling that they may not previously have consciously sought.

These developments, and many, many others, provide rich terrains for both the Citizenship classroom and the Citizenship educator, and for the boardroom and staffroom. Throughout lockdown and the painful, partial, stuttering exit from it, politicians have stressed the need to “follow the science”; they might have been wise to follow the social science too. In our classrooms, staffrooms and boardrooms, citizenship educators might be amongst those best placed to do so.

Education beyond the pandemic

In this new blog, first published by Collins Educational on their excellent Freedom To Teach site, I draw on some of the thinking in my new book, Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19, published in January 2021. In particular, I call for a rebalancing of our schooling system, such that building inclusion and widening participation are core objectives, not after thoughts to be ‘left til later’ in the relentless dash for grades.

“We need to balance the needs of the education system with the needs of the economy” opines a caller to a national daily phone-in show as I sit down to draft this blog. The point is a fair one but highlights one of the many false binaries that have characterised the debates about lockdown. While we might think of the economy as a series of ‘sectors’, the reality, as I argue in my forthcoming book Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 (Routledge, 2021), is that society is joined up. The “pubs or schools” debate that has dominated the headlines this year illustrates the point: the children of those who work in hospitality and catering will be impacted should a cost of the virus be the loss of their parents’ jobs, and unemployment, and the socio-economic disadvantage that swiftly follows, is a driver of educational under-achievement; lives and livelihoods, as the former Marks and Spencer CEO, Stuart Rose neatly puts it, are intrinsically intertwined. Herein lies the complexity of exiting lockdown, or as common parlance has it, “learning to live with the virus”.

Another binary, one that will be familiar to many readers of this blog, for it long predates the pandemic, is that between achievement, or rather attainment, and inclusion. This is a tension oft denied by both policymakers and practitioners; the denial is based on a simple objective: get everybody to achieve and nobody will be excluded. Of course, if everybody did achieve, there would be no exclusion and, indeed, no hierarchy but we know it doesn’t work that way, not least because education systems operate as the pre-selectors of destiny. Thus, attempts to broaden inclusion through, for instance, curricular and qualifications reform are painted as ‘dumbing down’. Moreover, the pursuit of ‘rigour’ is postulated on the need to (seemingly continually) raise standards. Thus, teacher assessment, coursework and modular examinations (much more accessible to reluctant learners, whatever their ability level and whether they are children or adults) are sacrificed at the altar of attainment, while more inclusive approaches are derided as offering “prizes for all” and, therefore, the enemy of excellence. That recent staple of education debates, that “too many young people are going to university nowadays”, is offered as evidence of a loss of such excellence, as if more education could be a bad thing. Notice that such a claim almost inevitably emerges, usually in impeccable English, from the voice of somebody who one suspects has been to university, whose parents went to university, and whose children and grandchildren are going to university, or will do in the fullness of time. They are talking about other people’s children.

The pursuit of excellence does not, therefore, build inclusion for all. Rather, it involves the implicit acceptance that some children will be left behind. Here, the recent history of educational reform in England is instructive. Thus, from their different starting points, Kenneth Baker in the late 1980s and David Blunkett in the late 1990s sought to address the shortcomings of what they saw, with some justification, as an underachieving education system, Baker through re-engineering this system (the National Curriculum, Ofsted, Performance Management and the Local Management of Schools) and Blunkett through a set of focused target driven strategies (the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, Excellence in Cities and the Standards Fund). The gains, especially in the first two New Labour terms were significant and initially delivered at speed, but the plateauing of the impact of these reforms was inevitable and, arguably, over the past decade, these efforts have become increasingly counter-productive. They manifested themselves in crises of teacher and school leader recruitment and retention, the generation and consolidation of sub-cohorts – marked out by gender, ethnicity, social class, housing tenure and area of residence – who routinely and intergenerationally underachieve, and a set of schools, recently defined (by Ofsted no less) as “stuck schools”, or as one focus group member described them to me a year or so ago, “career-damagingly difficult” schools. In short, the price of the increasing success of sixty, seventy, eighty per cent of our young people, has been the exclusion of the remaining forty, thirty, twenty per cent. Attainment-first strategies have proved successful for many (and, by any measure, our young people today achieve far more than they did when I entered teaching in the late 1980s, and far, far more than during my secondary school years in the preceding decade) but they have done so at the price of locking a minority into a self-perpetuating cycle of underachievement.

As I remark in Lessons From Lockdown, the pandemic didn’t create these patterns of inclusion and exclusion, or the chasm between them, but it has laid them bare for more to see, and in so doing it has caused many to reflect on whether this is how we want society to be. Educationally, we could take another path. We could make the inclusion of all, rather than the attainment of most, our priority. We could say that the first GCSE of the disadvantaged and excluded child is more important than the tenth GCSE of the advantaged and included child – and pivot teaching and financial resources accordingly. We could argue that while a broad, challenging, invigorating and creative curriculum ought to be an entitlement for all, ten GCSEs at Level 8 or 9 constitutes not a broad education, but the ability to succeed at one kind of learning and one kind of assessment. We could argue that we need to develop the qualities of innovation, character, resilience, collaboration and kindness, and that we need a social curriculum capable of delivering this. And we could argue that the vocational curriculum should not be something that young people fall into after academic failure, but something that many aspire to – a professional route that is as attractive to those who succeed in the academic domain as those who struggle.

None of this is easy or straightforward, and none of it can or should be achieved overnight, but the system shock that the pandemic has delivered might just offer us an opportunity to begin such work. In researching Lessons From Lockdown, we closed our discussions with interviewees and focus group participants with two questions: (1) What can’t you wait to get back to? and (2) What can’t you wait to leave behind? Perhaps we should hold this conversation more broadly; perhaps a rebalancing of our system in terms of achievement and inclusion might be one outcome of these reflections.

Should I stay or should I go?

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble,
And if I stay, it will be double!

The Clash, 1982

Not your everyday start to an educational blog, but not an everyday dilemma – the proposed partial ‘re-opening’ of primary schools from June 1st and secondary schools a week later. In this piece I want to explore some of the challenges that face children, parents, teachers, Heads and school governors as, with the virus apparently subsiding and those vulnerable to it becoming more clearly identifiable, lockdown eases. But first, in the spirit of good governance, I ought to express a conflict of interest or three: I’m a school governor, the parent of a child in one of the recalled cohorts, and the husband of a Headteacher. Oh, and a fourth: I’m a teacher by background, so you can guess where one set of sympathies lie.

It seems to me that this is as much about answering a series of questions as passing a series of tests. So, here’s just six of the many flying through my mind at present:

1. Which specific cohorts have been identified for recall, and what is the educational justification? At the time of posting, the proposal remains that Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils in primary schools, and Year 10 and Year 12 students in secondaries are recalled. The educational rationale for recalling Year 10 and 12 students is clear enough. These students have missed out on a term or so of GCSE or A level work, and the notion of ‘catch-up’, although often used spuriously in this debate, has some merit, even if moving the examining period for 2021 back from May and early June to June and early July might prove at least as effective. The case for Year 6 also has validity – in what would normally be the post-SATs period, the final summer term in primary or junior school is an important time for transition planning and getting children ready for the switch to secondary education, for the children and their teachers and teaching assistants to celebrate their progression on from primary schooling (in normal times, through performances, parties and sports days), and for the children to bid farewell to their primary school friends and those who have taught them as they head off, in many cases inevitably, to a variety of secondaries. The educational case for selecting children in Reception and Year One is much flimsier, and, of course, social distancing is a non-starter amongst those so young; ironically the social case for getting these children together, though, remains a powerful one.

2. Is the re-opening the precursor to a return for other year groups? To some degree, this will depend on the extent to which parents buy-in to this call to return. As I have remarked previously, policymakers seem to think that fear can be switched on and off like a tap; in truth, this is likely to be especially difficult within the context of a national culture that has spent three decades becoming progressively more risk-averse. With evidence of significant parental concern still out there, a carefully choreographed, socially spaced re-opening may be in vein if the return to school amounts to a trickle rather than a flood. And, given the need to group pupils into smaller, socially spaced classes (or ‘bubbles’), the prospect of a full return does not appear viable – at capacity, schools would essentially need to at least double the number of working rooms to accommodate the same number of learners (some schools are talking about eight pupils per room to meet the spacing obligations, although practice is likely to vary widely on this), and in primary schools, the proposed teaching of just three of seven-year groups is already testing those spending their time relocating desks, displays and children’s work. But if we assume that parents buy-in, pupils turn-up, schools can fit them in, and teachers and other school staff put aside their (entirely legitimate) concerns for their own wellbeing (and that of their families), will it all be educationally worthwhile?

3. What kind of educational provision will the returning cohorts receive? Although there have been criticisms of schools’ online provision during lockdown, notably from educational ministers who, whatever their achievements in building schools for the future, failed to either foresee or lay the foundations for greater online learning capacity during their own time in office, the strides taken by many schools and many, many teachers and school leaders in the space of a couple of months has been transformative. This raises the question of how much better a socially-spaced and possibly sparsely attended return will be than some of the high quality and highly innovative teaching that a significant proportion of the profession are now delivering; certainly, socially-spaced classrooms are likely to cut against much of the collaborative and group-based work at the heart of the best educational practice. Moreover, the possibility of sparse attendance begs a further question: is it practical or reasonable to ask teachers to now produce a dual curriculum: one face-to-face for those who show up and one for those who stay at home, especially one in which both strands are of comparable quality and impact? Doubtless some schools will prove me wrong, but my sense is this is a big call to a profession who many have not noticed have worked through the lockdown and their Easter holidays to serve the needs of the children of other key workers, and those deemed ‘vulnerable’. That schools are re-opening is of course a misnomer; they’ve never actually closed. Maybe the energy now being put into what might look like a tokenistic gesture involving a handful of year groups would have been better put into two things: first, further enabling teachers to refine their often newly-found (or at least newly-deployed) online teaching skills so that these become a positive addition to the pedagogical toolkit, post COVID-19; second, putting greater energy into a cohort not defined by age, but by circumstance. It is to this issue that I now turn.

4. What about social justice? Every cloud has a silver lining, and just maybe the silver lining here lies in the new embrace around social justice for the educationally disadvantaged or excluded that seems to be emerging across the political spectrum. Let’s be clear, the experience of lockdown for our children and young people is not universal; for some, the experience is traumatising and isolating; for others, freedom from the institution that is school is liberating, for others, home learning has been a revelation that they may stick with after the virus has passed, and for some, the one-to-one tuition and/or the increased family time is a blessing, albeit a short term one. Nonetheless, it is beyond contention, that by-and-large those who are losing most – educationally, emotionally and socially – through this period are disadvantaged students, especially those living in poor housing, deprived neighbourhoods and/or difficult family settings, while those who are gaining most are the better-heeled children of the middle classes. But it was ever thus, and, throughout this period in any case, schools have been open to many of these children and young people. Interestingly, though, significant numbers of these so called ‘vulnerable’ children have not turned up during the lockdown period; is calling back pupils in certain groups likely to address this? The Pupil Premium gap didn’t emerge with COVID-19 and it won’t, without multiple other interventions – more personalised, more out-reach focused, more mentor and tutor supported – disappear after the virus passes or because a minority of these children might return to the classroom now (which they might, given that their ‘vulnerability’ will not be so publicly badged, much as free school meals were in the 1970s). We need to hold on to the return of the lexicon of social justice to the policymaking agenda post COVID-19 but, whatever we do in the next few weeks, it is arguable whether or not this will have a profound impact. The river of educational disadvantage runs longer and deeper than that, and has many tributaries.

5. Is this really about childcare and economics, rather than education? Yes, of course! Those of us who make our living in education have often resented those ‘snow day’ television news interviews in which parents ruminate on not being able to get to work because their child’s school has closed, but the truth is that the virus has exposed the multiple functions of schooling that we have too long denied: enabling parent engagement in the labour market, providing a daily meeting place at the school gate, creating a social space in which children can grow into adulthood. For many of those children and young people who are struggling most during the lockdown, it is the social function of schooling that leaves the biggest gap – the craic of schooling, not the grades generated, a fact long-ignored by the narrowness of the standards agenda and the marginalisation of the social curriculum. Of course, the grades matter, but the narrative of ‘catch-up’, as colleagues in a recent meeting of the rejuvenated Fabian Society Education Group framed it, is secondary – at least at this point in time – to many of these pupils. Perhaps if the re-opening were focused on addressing these social issues, it might find broader support; the learning can wait – let’s focus on the loneliness (and the lonely and isolated) for now, and free their parents to return to work in the process, possibly irrespective of their occupation and the year group that their children fall into.

6. Is it safe for teachers, children and young people or parents gathering at the school gate to return? The truth is we do not know, although there is a widening sense that, if the virus is going to take many more months to defeat, we will need to develop strategies across various walks of life to live with it, and education will not be immune from this need. Teaching and learning strategies that are more online, targeted and personalised will have a part to play in this, and might make their greatest contribution yet in the academic year starting in September 2021, but educational professionals are right to be cautious and concerned, and our policymakers ought to focus on reassurance rather than castigation in their responses to this. There isn’t a teacher who doesn’t want to teach, or a school leader that doesn’t want their school fully open and operating at capacity for all children, but we need to achieve this at a pace that brings parents and the profession with us; building this support should consume our energies over the months ahead. Will opening school doors a shade wider in early June provide the impetus to enable this, or does it box us into a false dawn and a corrosive dispute between, as the Daily Mail has already framed it, parents and teachers? Only time will tell, but it would be wise to remember that many of us wear both of those hats, and more.

Time for educational researchers to take their place in the sun?

As recent posts on the BERA blog have demonstrated, in the quiet chaos of lockdown a range of taken-for-granted assumptions (Courtney, 2020), competencies (Zhou and Wolstencroft, 2020) and conceptualisations (Fenshaw-Smith, 2020)are being evaluated as never before: that a particular approach to formal schooling is the sole means of delivering mass education, that teacher assessment is intrinsically less valid and reliable than a conventional unseen written test, that the absence of formal examinations and the postponement of inspections will precipitate system collapse, that the primary purpose of schooling – much as we may fight this – is as much about childcare and servicing economic need as it is about fostering a love of learning, that home-schooling – while isolating for some and a likely driver of inequalities – may be a panacea for others, especially those who have never loved the inevitable institutionalisation of traditional schooling, and that technology can open up new pedagogies – some liberating, others limiting.

As I have remarked elsewhere, following Goffman (1959), schools – especially secondary schools – have the habit of maximising the feeling of change while minimising its impact (Breslin, 2009). How else, in the emergent post-modernity of the twenty-first century might we explain the survival of a curriculum largely framed in the early independent schools that preceded the industrial era and extended to all through the mass-schooling progressively rolled out in the industrial age? How else might one explain the continued survival of an assessment system built around the presumption that the majority of young people exit education at 16, at least a quarter of a century after this has ceased to be the case? Or the survival of A level, seventy years after it was introduced to select an elite for progression to university in an age when such progression is closer to the norm than the exception? How else might the modular palaces of New Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme have bequeathed us a clutch of secondary schools that, in spite of their shiny exteriors and corporate foyers, are largely built on exactly the same organisational and curricular template as the crumbling buildings of the 1950s, 60s and 70s that they largely replaced. Building schools for the past, more like. And all of this – and much, much more – in spite of the relentless, constancy of educational reform programmes.

Herein lies the potential of COVID-19; for all its destructive impact, it is delivering a system shock that may deliver changes that endure beyond lockdown, albeit ones that may replace old challenges with new ones, or the same ones in a different guise, notably the continuance and possible entrenchment of educational inequalities.

As educational researchers, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility here: to be ahead of this particular curve, to capture these moments, and specifically to capture the experience of the pupils, students, teachers and families of lockdown. Just as the scientific community is throwing all that it has behind efforts to develop tests and vaccinations, and those involved in manufacturing are throwing their energies into producing ventilators and Personal Protective Equipment, our energies, as educational researchers, ought to lie in capturing the experience of these cohorts, not in retrospect, but as it is being lived now. Let me finish by offering just one area that requires exploration – the experience of those young people currently enrolled on GCSE or A level courses, or participating in apprenticeship programmes.

The cohort of young people currently in Year 10 and 11 preparing for GCSEs, those in Year 12 and 13 preparing for A levels, and those on apprenticeship and similar programmes will have powerful and unique stories to tell, but these personal stories are more than a set of individual narratives. There is scope here for a body of comparative, longitudinal work that tracks those in Years 11 and 13 who have had examinations and assessments cancelled or adapted, those in Years 10 and 12 who have had the first year of their studies significantly interrupted, and those who were examined or otherwise assessed under the ‘old’ normalities in 2019. How, comparatively, will these groups fare as apprentices and undergraduates? How, again comparatively, will they fare in future employment markets and in income profile? And are there other, specific ways in which they might thrive or struggle because of their experience of lockdown, notably in terms of wellbeing and outlook?

Of course, there are multiple other research opportunities and needs, far more than one could identify in a blog of a few hundred words, but the point is to identify and capture these. To fail to collate, curate and share educational lessons from the lockdown would be a missed opportunity to stress how important the contribution of educational research can be at this time; it would also be a dereliction of our duty and our purpose as researchers at a time when the foundations of an education system fit for the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth, might just be being laid. Let’s make sure that we play our part in the construction of education’s new normal, one that addresses at the outset the pervasive failings of that which it replaces.


Breslin, T. (2009), Teachers, Schools and Change, Doctoral Thesis, UCL Institute of Education, London
Courtney, S., Armstrong, P., Gardner-McTaggart, A., Gunter, H., Hughes, B., Innes. M and Rayner. S. (2020) Five educational myths that COVID-19 shatters: BERA Blog: 14 April
Fenshaw-Smith, A. (2020) Should we really call this home schooling? Reflections from the research field: BERA Blog: 6 May
Goffman, E. (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Doubleday, New York
Zhou, X. and Wolstencroft, P. (2020) Digital masters? Reflecting on the readiness of students and staff for digital learning: BERA Blog: 9 April

Lessons from Lockdown: education beyond Covid-19

Laying the foundations for an education system built for tomorrow

The experience of millions of children being schooled at home could provide a catalyst for us to pose deeper questions about what we need of an education system built for tomorrow.

As well as grief, the long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic will be shaped by how we respond to what we have learnt, from our fragility (as individuals and as a human race) and the unequal impact of this, to our definition of key workers. In his typically insightful essay, The path from crisis, the RSA’s Matthew Taylor explores the potential for change that has been opened up by the Covid-19 crisis but convincingly argues that if the opportunity to do things differently after the pandemic is to be taken, three preconditions must apply. First, that there is a pre-existing demand and capacity for change. Second, that the crisis not only strengthens that demand but configures alternative mindsets and practices; and, third, that there are political alliances, practical policies and innovations that are ready to be deployed in the period after the crisis when people and systems are more open to change.

These three conditions are already in existence in one area of activity that has been fundamentally impacted by the pandemic: our schooling system. Here. I am not talking, fundamentally, about the technology of teaching, the enforced mainstreaming of home-schooling or the emergence of distance learning in school settings, profound as all of those are. Rather, this essay explores how the pandemic is forcing and enabling us to think about some of the unresolved tensions in our approach to schooling, many of which are rooted in the long-standing failure to be clear about the purpose of education itself. The aim is to lay bare a pre-existing demand for change and to strengthen it, identifying some interesting and new political alliances developed through or prior to the crisis, that might make many of us – parents, teachers, school leaders and some policymakers – more open to change.

There has been a long debate about what we teach, why we teach it, and how. But for decades, we have largely been stuck between false choices between excellence and equality, and between standards and inclusion. And, our approach to reform in schooling has been to tinker and tweak: exam reform, curriculum adaption, revised inspection frameworks and new performance measures. This tinkering reveals a need for change – or at least, and from various starting points, dissatisfaction with the status quo – but fails to address this need, while being highly disruptive.

Many of those in education, who are not working tirelessly to keep schools open for the children of key workers and for those who are vulnerable, are finding the lockdown an enforced but useful space in which to reflect on the purpose of education and what we need schools to be like in the wake of Covid-19. Ironically, the lockdown has released at least some of us from the relentlessness of everyday schooling, and minds are drifting, not necessarily consciously, to what schooling could be like, and what it might need to be like as we approach the second quarter of the twenty-first century. And the longer the lockdown goes on, the starker this hitherto, often concealed, need for change becomes, and the greater the confidence that school leaders, teachers and the wider school workforce develop in beginning to preconfigure the various shapes that the new schooling might take.

But, first a little more on the need for change: the reality is that today’s entrant to reception class is likely to find their first job in an industry that does not yet exist, making something or (more likely) delivering a service that has not yet been invented, meeting a need we do not yet know we have. Moreover, this child is unlikely to go on to have one career, but three or four in a lifetime. Many of today’s young people will pursue multiple work channels alongside each other, mixing and matching, clambering across a complex career scaffolding rather than taking steady steps up a single career ladder. For those further up, this might prove to be enjoyable, if intrinsically precarious; for those at the margins, with multiple zero hours and fixed-term contracts, insecurity is the only guarantee.

For all, employment is likely to play a lesser role; it is no longer enough for our schools to prepare young people for employment alone. As Taylor has argued elsewhere, schools will need to play their part in a wider education system that enables individuals to strive and thrive in every aspect of their life beyond the workplace: as citizens, as local residents, and as family and community members. Such a future cannot hope to be served by a schooling system designed in and on the modernist template of the factory system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; one that may have delivered monotony for many workers but for some brought a certain solidarity in the production lines it generated.

Breadth and balance for an uncertain future

This means revisiting not just how we train our educators and run our institutions but also requires us to think harder about what a broad and balanced curriculum for an unknown future might look like, offering some hints as to how it might be delivered. Here, I focus on the secondary school curriculum, and specifically the upper secondary curriculum, but some of this is pertinent to primary, further and higher education.

Currently, our secondary school curriculum is a bit like a Billy bookcase from Ikea, or a big box of Lego. You can generate multiple variations. The Department for Education and its agencies periodically steer (and sometimes force) us towards a particular configuration, whether that be based on the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative in the 1980s, the National Curriculum launched towards the close of that decade or, more recently, the ill-named English Baccalaureate or E-Bac. But fundamentally the nature of schooling at scale is that all the building blocks have to fit together.

Most secondary schools would claim to offer a broad and balanced curriculum and, at first glance, that would appear to be true: English, maths, geography or history, some mix of physics, chemistry and biology (or perhaps some form of combined science course), French, German or Spanish, religious studies, design technology in some form, possibly computer science, maybe citizenship studies, maybe an arts course of some form.

But a closer inspection reveals significant challenges. First, this list, certainly the first two thirds of it, consists primarily of traditional academic subjects, as does its heavily promoted sub-set, the E-Bac. Second, in most schools, every subject is examined through the same assessment tool, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), many of these in much the same way. This works reasonably well for those earlier in the list (including maths, English, the humanities, the sciences and languages) but it is questionable whether the model works as well for practical, creative and artistic subjects or a programme like citizenship education (where the consequences of failure do not bare thinking about). Third, the arts and creative subjects and the social sciences are pushed to the margins, with the latter barely featuring at all. Finally, other than a nod from the design technology curriculum, professional, technical and vocational subjects are absent from the mix.

Moreover, recent reforms to GCSE and A’ Level, have driven (in the name not so much of standards but of standardisation) this cross-subject homogeneity to new levels with the virtual end of teacher assessment, coursework and modularisation. These have all come rapidly back into vogue – or are forlornly missed – in the context of the cancellation of this year’s written papers. So much for learning through doing, as coursework enables students to do, and for offering those bite-sized chunks that are more manageable for the reluctant and tentative learner, for whom a linear two-year course with a single terminal examination is both fear-inducing and impractical. This is especially important to those sitting GCSE and A’ Level exams in non-school school settings, in further education, as returning adult learners (often failed by the system first time around) and to home learners (of which there will surely be more post Covid-19).

In short, an upper secondary curriculum composed of eight, nine, 10, or more GCSEs does not so much offer breadth and balance but variations on a theme, or maybe a couple of themes. It forces a significant range of subjects to compromise their very essence in the name of a one-size-fits all assessment tool. Since GCSE is the only trick in town, those skills and abilities, and the knowledge that resides in these subjects, are recast to fit the template; the examination defining the subject, rather than meeting the subject’s, or student’s, needs.

And this is before we consider the learning that might accrue from undertaking courses in professional, technical and vocational education, by participating in work-related and workplace-based learning or by engaging in community projects and enterprise initiatives. Too often, the vocational curriculum becomes one that learners fall onto because of a lack of success in the academic mainstream, rather being a positive choice. No wonder that, as a nation, we so often mourn our inability to attract young people into engineering or to build the productive capacity we need, as Covid-19 has once again exposed.

Meanwhile, in spite of the rhetoric, activities designed to develop the much-trumpeted qualities of character, empathy and resilience are marginalised and pushed into extra-curricular spaces as add-ons. The message conveyed by the system? Give the naughty boys (in this highly gendered landscape) a car engine, and build your character after your homework is done.

The total learned experience

It could be different and the system shock delivered by Covid-19 might cause us to ponder how. How might we shape a curriculum that delivers genuine breadth and balance? A balance that enables every learner to undertake, for instance, a community engagement experience, high-quality professional education and regular experiential exposure to the creative arts alongside, not instead of, academic study. A breadth that values more than one assessment tool.

There are, maybe three, glimpses of light here. Firstly, the forced cancellation of this summer’s GCSE and A’ Level examinations in favour of what I describe as “predicted grade plus” assessments (Teachers told to decide pupils’ grades for A levels and GCSEs, Rosemary Bennett, The Times, March 21 2020), ought to cause this government, after a decade of deriding teacher assessment and coursework, to think again about the value of teacher input to the assessment process. The system, rightly, will seek to ensure that this cohort of children is not disadvantaged but, as a group, their onward progress creates a live-experiment. Their future success might just tell us that our long-standing and growing dependency on a very narrow range of high-stakes tests might have reached its nadir.

Secondly, we have seen schools use a range of innovative ways to support young people and teachers, especially through online technologies. We have also seen innovative responses from children and young people and their families to the assignments set. This could teach us a lot about what aspects of learning and what areas of curriculum we need to deliver in traditional ways in traditional classroom settings, and where we may have been using yesterday’s technology, methodology and pedagogy for far too long.

Thirdly, the experience of lockdown may cause us to appreciate and re-appraise the multiple social purposes of schooling. Recent events have confirmed the importance of schools as community hubs and as the providers of childcare; they have underlined the often-unseen work that schools, especially those in our most deprived communities, undertake in supporting vulnerable children. The role of schools in providing a site for the personal development of all children – one in which self-esteem, self-confidence, character and resilience can be developed – is likely to leave a lasting, defining and long-overdue mark on our educational thinking. Too often, this has been seen as a ‘side-effect’ of schooling, not one of its core functions. And if we are to acknowledge this social function of schooling, surely that calls forth a new focus on the social curriculum and the oft-ignored areas of personal, social and health education (PSHE), of citizenship studies and of family learning.

These glimpses of light are likely to be buttressed by the re-emergence of curriculum at the heart of the recently revised Ofsted inspection framework. This ought to open up the space for a reconsideration of issues of breadth and balance, provided that the inspectorate is encouraged to think of curriculum not just as a list of subjects but also as the total learned experience of the child in the school. Curriculum is, after all, what schools do, and its public documentation, through vehicles like the National Curriculum and the E-Bac, a statement of the knowledge, skills and values that we think are sufficiently important to pass on to the next generation. If we want to nurture in our young a positive disposition towards activities like volunteering – so vital to the Covid-19 response but also instrumental in more joyous national moments such as London 2012 – the school curriculum offers a logical place to start and, as Taylor suggests, we need to start planning for this now.

Alliances for change

What is certain is that the total learned experience of every child needs to be richer and broader if we are to successfully prepare young people for a less predictable future. Navigating the virus itself, negotiating and living with unpredictability is something that we all have to become better at; skills that will surely serve us well after these days have passed.

In the process we are building new alliances, on and off-line, and devising and trialling innovations that we would be fools to discard as lockdown eases. In so doing, let us not only look to the new, but also re-energise and fire-up the alliances of the pre-Covid-19 landscape so often ignored by the E-Bac instrumentalists. This includes the creative practitioners of the expressive arts mobilised through a range of networks, including the Creative Partnerships movement. It includes the sports coaches and PE teachers – corralled and inspired by London 2012 – before the infra-structure of local school sports partnerships that enabled them to thrive was hastily dismantled months later. It means showing a new practical appreciation for the citizenship educators given the limelight by the former minister, David Blunkett, and the late political theorist, Bernard Crick, but never given the promised and required space in the curriculums of so many schools.

If we are to create an education and schooling system fit for a world as yet unknown, we need to retain and build on the energy and innovation of these and many other pre-existing and newly forming alliances. In this new landscape, a set of decent examination grades and a grasp of various academic disciplines will continue to open doors, but grades alone will be wholly insufficient.


Governance during lockdown: can we go governance-light without going governance-free?

Most Heads that I’ve spoken with in recent weeks have described the past month or so as one of their most challenging in headship, especially because most schools remain open to support the children of keyworkers and those who are vulnerable.

Since lockdown, there has been much discussion about SATs, GCSEs and A levels but these debates barely scratch the surface of what Heads are currently managing, and the nuanced nature of the day-to-day judgement calls that they are having to make, a task that they are passionate about getting right but one which is far from easy: Who counts as a keyworker? Who counts as a vulnerable child? What level of support should and can schools realistically provide for home study? How well is a particular school equipped to deal with the provision of such support? What does school look like for those still in attendance? How are we going to say good-bye to those moving on to junior or secondary school, or to college, university or employment, or to much-loved staff who are leaving us? Oh, and what am I going to do about the governors?

As governors, one of the things we have to do is to find a way to take that last question off the table, to go governance-light, without going governance-free; we cannot do the latter because our legal and moral responsibilities as members of Governing Boards (as recent advice from the Department for Education and the National Governance Association makes clear) do not disappear. However, we must do the former, and go governance-light, because, frankly, much of the really important stuff that we do in ordinary times will, like the economy, just have to wait. By comparison with those challenges facing Heads on a daily basis, our predicament is much less pressing. Nonetheless, it remains important.

So, what might. ’governance-light’ look like? No trite answers here, but three questions that we might wish to ponder:

  1. Can we reduce the number of scheduled meetings we hold without abdicating responsibility? During the summer term we know there’ll be a budget to sign-off and we’ll also need to create time for reflection on a school year unlike any other, but can we hold over sub-committee and working group meetings until the Autumn term (or whenever we start up again)? This does not, of course, stop sub-committee members liaising on-line, giving advice or acting as a sounding board, or providing a sometimes vital second set of eyes, if or when the Head needs us to play this role. Nor does it preclude a weekly or fortnightly phone or Skype check-in between the Head and Chair to ensure information flows remain open and support remains accessible. As the latest DFE guidance, cited and supported by the NGA, makes clear: School leaders should stay in touch with the governing board in a proportionate way, including providing information on the welfare of staff and pupils, so that they can retain a strategic overview of the situation and the school (Governing in challenging circumstances: business continuity and holding virtual meetings, National Governance Association, 7 April 2020)
  1. Can we make sure that any meetings that we do hold are as short and as tightly-focused as they can be? Moreover, can we think about the timing of these (almost inevitably) virtual sessions, taking the needs of our Head and staff governors as a starting point, and baring in mind that home working will have changed the shape of the working day for many? This may offer the possibility of daytime or early evening meetings. It should mean gatherings that are much shorter than we are used to, probably of about an hour in length, or ninety minutes at the outside. And let’s presume non-attendance from any NHS (and other key worker) Board Members (whether or not they are ‘on shift’), and any staff governors who have been ‘in’ that day, while making sure that they’re kept absolutely in the loop.
  1. Can we minimise the preparation burden on all concerned, especially our Headteacher? Let’s reduce the paperwork (a longstanding aspiration for most of us), perhaps going further than we ordinarily would (or should) by not asking anybody to draft written reports ahead of – or as a result of – our meetings. Instead, let’s put the focus on ensuring that the Head has Board buy-in and, where necessary, formal sign-off for any, as the DFE puts it, “urgent, time-bound decisions” (DFE School Governance Update, 25 March 2020), and on the processes that will enable our senior leaders to take such decisions ‘in the moment’, free in the knowledge that the Governing Board is, well, on board.

The principle behind all of this is simple: we need to ensure that the tone of meetings, messages, phone calls or other communications is entirely at the support end of the ‘support-challenge’ continuum, so that, as the DFE put it, school leaders can “get on with operational matters”; if this were our usual practice, it would not amount to good governance. But these, as we are all too aware, are not ordinary times.

Of course, this will mean some catch-up activity further down the line, but it may also cause us to focus, as never before, on what really matters, and on the quality of our collaboration and partnership. Long term, this may lead to better, more effective governance, and a range of practices that weren’t even on the horizon a month or two ago.

And maybe, just maybe, as we approach another day, week or month in this socially-distanced landscape, let’s be sure to use any time that, as governors, we have to think creatively and pre-emptively in a way that the pace of an ordinary school year denies us.

Right now, we might yearn for that ordinariness but, in the interim, we need to consider the longer-term impact of the system-shock delivered to our schools, and the wider education system, by the virus; schools and school governance might never be the same again. As governors, let’s play our part in shaping the new, as yet unknown, post-COVID-19 reality.

COVID-19: Why our schools will never be the same again

A couple of months in, and COVID-19 is already redefining how and where we work, how we shop, how we interact with each other, and, critically, who we acknowledge as key workers. As such, the virus is not just threatening our physical survival and mental wellbeing, it is drilling deep into the values we hold and how we live our lives.

The impact on the education of our children will be just as profound.

In years to come, the shutdown of education UK-wide on Friday 20th March 2020 won’t simply be seen as a matter of school closures, it’ll will be seen as the closure of a kind of schooling – the beginning of the end of an era.

Bars and restaurants closed later the same day, without even the 48 hours notice afforded to schools, but we are not expecting these social hubs to be radically different when they re-open, or at least when those that survive the economic meltdown do.

With schools, however, this is unlikely to be the case. In this very ‘spur of the moment’ blog, I want to suggest five things that we may find ourselves doing very differently in our schools post COVID-19; there are many others, but here are five to be getting started with:

  1. The use of technology in education: one, often unnoticed, group of schools is likely to excel during and after the closedown, and they will not necessarily be those who have hitherto been judged ‘Outstanding’, either by the inspectorate, or in their communities. Instead, these will be those schools who have mastered the world of online learning, and in particular socially-connected online learning – those who can still convene groups and facilitate virtual classrooms, those who can host conversations between students, teachers and parents, and those who genuinely ‘get’ the potential and practice of online assessment – all of this technology exists and many of our more successful businesses use it. Beyond COVID-19, its use will become increasingly normalised in our schools. Indeed, in the upper secondary phase and in Further and Higher Education, where childcare is not an issue, this technology might mean that ‘working from home’ will become as common in our learning environments as it is already, and increasingly, in our businesses;
  2. The culture of tests, tables and targets: nothing is more instructive of the impact of our ‘grades are all that matters’ culture than the reaction of young people to the cancellation of their examinations, and their incredulity at the idea that they may gain grades without having to complete exam papers. Grades are the focus, not the knowledge and skills that they have already mastered through attending classes, reading, research and, of course, inspirational teaching. A generation ago, the cancellation of exams for 16 and 18 year olds might have brought celebrations in the streets. Against this background, COVID-19 provides a classic ‘what matters’ moment. Beyond COVID-19, the ground is likely to be fertile for a much wider discussion about whether a culture of tests, targets and tables should be such a dominant driver of what we do in our schools. At the very least, we should focus hard on what educational targets should focus on, what tests  should assess and what tables should record;
  3. How we do assessment and examinations: the furore over the ‘cancellation’ of SATs, GCSEs and A levels has shone a light on the oddity of fixed assessment points in a ‘just in time’ world. Imagine a world in which we all did our driving test on the same day or a model where only a certain percentage could pass the test, or one where the tabloids through their hands up in horror if the numbers passing moved consistently upward – unthinkable, and yet that’s pretty much the case with public examining in our schooling system. Alongside this, observe the irony of a government that removes coursework, gets rid of modular courses (note the recently departed AS-A2 model at A level), marginalises teacher assessment and derides predicted grades, only to fall back on what remains of this infrastructure to provide this year’s grades. We ought to use this crisis to rethink how we assess children and young people: could the kind of online assessment now used routinely in high-end recruitment (by Ofsted amongst others) be used to assess GCSE and A level on a just-in-time basis, not on a certain day in May or June, but when the learner is ready? And could we find that continuous, teacher-led assessment is not the enemy of standards that it has too often been portrayed (and betrayed) as? It will be fascinating to track the class of 2020 through to graduation and employment and compare them with their predecessors; my guess is that this horribly messed around year group might just come up trumps, but, in the meantime, let’s resist the urge, in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19, to just go back to ‘assessment as normal’;
  4. Schools as childcare hubs: many of us in education have long been irritated by the notion that we are offering childcare rather than providing education for the children in our classrooms and assembly halls, as we are routinely and typically reminded when snow falls or on staff training days. The truth is that the history of compulsory schooling is wrapped up with industrialisation, and, therefore, the need to both educate and provide care. Fine, but let’s use this crisis to remind ourselves of the social value of schools – as hubs of education, yes, but also as places for children to meet and interact, and as childcare facilities that enable parents to work and society to function. And if we’re going to acknowledge these multiple purposes of schooling, can, beyond COVID-19, we begin to judge school performance (not unreasonable in such an important publicly funded service), across a wider scorecard, one that engages educators in the process, and one that has greater empathy for these educators?
  5. The status of teachers and all who work in schools: the government’s understandable objective to keep schools open as long as possible because of the multiple impacts of closure (on vulnerable children, on the NHS workforce, and on the many others now newly – and belatedly – acknowledged as key workers), has shone a light on the importance of all who work in our schools: school leaders, teachers, teaching and laboratory assistants, those making and serving school meals, those looking after children during break and mealtimes, site managers and after-school club staff, school bursars and business managers, cleaners and maintenance staff, sports coaches and librarians, specialists from the variety of professions that support those with special educational needs and disabilities, and so on. Many of these committed professionals will continue to work over the weeks ahead and, exceptionally, over the Easter break, so as to support key workers and vulnerable children. Beyond COVID-19, the status of the schools workforce, and host of other key workers, will find its proper place in our hearts and in our minds. Not before time.

Feedback and further suggestions welcome; getting through this crisis will be hard enough, but if we can allow ourselves a little optimism, let’s do some serious thinking about the education system, and the wider society, that we want, and will need, beyond COVID-19, both in the immediate aftermath, and in the longer term. Let’s be creative, let’s be compassionate, and let’s think different!