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?

People

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?

Place

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?

Purpose

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.

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.

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 et.al., 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.

References

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

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.

Stephen Twigg MP, Professor Geoff Whitty CBE and Children’s Commissioner Maggie Atkinson to speak at the launch of Transform Education

We are pleased to announce that Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Stephen Twigg MP, Professor Geoff Whitty of the University of Bath School of Management (and formerly Director at the University of London Institute of Education) and Children’s Commissioner Maggie Atkinson are to speak at the launch of Transform Education on the evening of Tuesday 13th March at Portcullis House, Westminster.

This is the first in a series of three meetings, staged in partnership with GlobalNet 21, exploring the challenges facing educators in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. The focus of the debate at this first session will be on rethinking policy and practice with regard to curriculum and achievement.
Further details about the Transform Education project and about the event, including how to register for an invitation, can be found on our website, breslinpublicpolicy.com.
Tickets will be allocated on a first-to-respond basis.