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 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.

Leading like never before: power relationships, post-lockdown

Nyla Naseer
Director, Work Fit Play

We’ve never known anything like it and we were totally blindsided: Covid-19 has defined 2020 in truly historic ways. We are now starting to emerge, blinking into the sunlight of a roadmap to a new normality, one defined in many minds by the end of furloughing at the close of October. With this date in play we can surmise that soonish (perhaps late summer), many more workers will be easing back to their socially distanced offices and workplaces, others will be offered the choice of continuing to work from home, at least on a part-time basis, and fears of higher unemployment levels with be either confirmed or cast aside.

Much has been made of the speeding up of the transition to home working, virtual working and the like; in the main commentators have felt that this will be a positive change. This will be a ‘coming of age’ for technology, especially when 5G starts to take off. It is the responsibility of governments and employers to ensure that this transition does not come at the expense of our individual rights and freedoms: the erosion of privacy appears innocuous until it means that we are no longer able to make our own choices. Much has been written on what this might mean for society.

Less time has been devoted to considering the impact of a changed work reality on power relationships at work, especially over the coming transition period. Although some people will continue working from home, many more will be returning to an external place of work. In some businesses, front-line workers have been working from ‘work’ whereas managers have been working from home. This has meant that there has been a ‘virtual’ disconnect between colleagues, either across the entire organisation, or between levels within an organisation. The impact of this disconnect on relationships should not be under-estimated.

Working remotely can bring greater autonomy for less senior personnel. Virtual meetings seem to have exposed the meaninglessness of many meetings in general and people have found work-arounds for these and other aspects of work they previously disliked. Productivity has, perhaps surprisingly, improved in many cases; home-working is a novelty situation and it can also create a smaller team environment – both factors that psychologists have shown benefits productivity.

Despite these results, many people will shortly be heading back into workplaces and meeting their old colleagues and managers again, with the expectation that things get (relatively) back to normal. For individual managers and workers there can be challenges in moving back to even partial face-to-face working.

Those with a new found flair for working online may feel constrained if and when they are asked to reintroduce some of their old work routines. Virtual communication may have shown colleagues in new more positive or more negative lights. Lockdown may have severely reduced the ‘existence’ of colleagues in the lives and minds of others in the organisation and led to a breakdown in organisational culture and a rise in people ‘free-styling’ their own way of work, sometimes very successfully and questioning the need for management at all.

For some managers the return will bring anxiety. Used to holding power based on status and a perceived level of importance, they may walk into a scenario where people have done fine without them. Rather than resort to trying to impose the ‘old ways’ which have been proved irrelevant given the social experiment that Covid-19 has enabled, an alternative is for managers to use the opportunity to adapt to new realities. One example may be ceding power to people who have proved themselves talented in different tasks. This can free up leaders to identify how to create a new organisational culture with new ways of participating across the board: a major challenge for the future.

Post-lockdown, leaders will need to lead a newly empowered, perhaps anxious workforce during a turbulent phase of history – one in which jobs and sectors radically change while the spectre of new virus outbreaks persists. This is a time for humility and acceptance. You may not have been as important as you thought you were but there is now an opportunity to lead like never before.

About the author

Following a distinguished career in the public sector, which included leading improvement in the cultural industries and in the housing sector, Nyla Naseer established a successful management consultancy with a focus on commercial improvement and human-centred work, whilst maintaining her active participation in athletics and journalism. This experience led her to refine her focus and she now operates a boutique management consultancy focused on organisational development and productivity, She also commentates on the changes affecting organisations and communities via her personal blog and critical friend service, adopting an accessible and balanced style with the aim of de-mystifying the often confusing circumstances we are facing.

Impetus: the times are a-changing, but will they change us?

Michelle Lawrence
Director, Link Up UK
Co-founder, Belong: the Cohesion and Integration Network

The idea of the ‘impetus’ has been the elusive challenge that I have been grappling with. For some years now, my charity has been focusing on how we can change attitudes towards the ‘other’. How do we engage with those people and those views when there is nothing to persuade them to engage? How do we bring them to the table or the screen? And how do we change their views when they get there. However you get people to feel differently about the other, the first step has to be to find the impetus for them to engage in the first place.

Most people are averse to changing, they don’t see there is anything wrong with how they think. Let’s face it, none of us like being told or having to accept that we have been misled, or incorrect, or even racist! We socialise with people who reflect our views, we read papers that support our ways of thinking, our social media is littered with self-congratulatory endorsements of our ideas.

So what on earth can intrude into our echo chambers to become the impetus to enable change? For most, it is a personal thing. They’ve met someone who challenges their thinking, maybe a family member whose identity strays from their family norm, or a friend or a helper who doesn’t fit the stereotype they’ve held for so long. In most cases each impetus is specific and personal, and are not possible to replicate or manufacture.

But maybe now we’ve been handed the biggest impetus there has ever been? The line – we have more in common than divides us – is never more true than in a lockdown. We’re all baking more (flour seems to have overtaken even toilet paper in the precious stakes), we’re all talking on Zoom, cleaning more, decluttering, making up lists of things we’ll still not get round to doing – and we’re all experiencing a collective sense of the weird twilight style world we’re inhabiting.

For the first time in what seems like forever, we all seem to be united against a collective foe, and our warriors have very different faces to those we would have expected. Our warriors wear scrubs, supermarket uniforms, tabards and masks. And many of the faces behind those masks are the faces of the ‘other’.

The very papers that till recently ran story after story about the burden of migration are the same papers that today are calling them heroes. So what happens next? Has the impetus worked enough? Are we now a cohesive society, are we all ‘woke’ to the benefits of diversity and migration? The answer I believe is both yes and no.

Whilst it is refreshing that the right wing groups have been noticeably quiet during this time, neither they nor their views have gone anywhere. And this tip of the iceberg group is not where we need to be looking to assess the impact of the Covid 19 impetus.

We have all seen the amazing stories of kindness and community that have sprung forth from this pandemic. People have been uniting and organising and supporting and helping in unprecedented ways. It has been the most beautiful sight to behold and to be a part of. But below this surface unity there are still cracks. Whether you look at the pitchfork yielding messages to the ‘outsiders’ or the inconceivable aggression towards NHS staff, the message that ‘we’re all in it together’ seems to shake somewhat. We’re not all experiencing it the same. The poor and the BAME communities are experiencing it worst, urban areas have been hit harder than rural, and the elderly are particularly suffering.

It’s what happens next that will see determine if this impetus has worked. Instead of bringing people together, will we have created new divides – between the survivors and those at risk, between the vulnerable and the less so? Or will we just go back to how it was before?

Will we remember the faces behind the masks when we are looking at our neighbours, will we remember it was our neighbours that came through for us? Will we remember that it was the people who blamed the ‘other’ for the failings in society who did the least? An impetus is not a one hit wonder. It needs to be sustained. And reminders need to be made of the pure and true value of the diversity of the faces behind the masks.

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.