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.

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).

Capturing the lessons of lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education beyond the pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, workplayfit.com. She also commentates on the changes affecting organisations and communities via her personal blog and critical friend service nylanaseer.co.uk, adopting an accessible and balanced style with the aim of de-mystifying the often confusing circumstances we are facing.