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.

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.

Classrooms, boardrooms and staffrooms

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


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

The remaining challenge for Citizenship educators

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

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

Crick’s Legacy

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

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

Revisiting the Citizenship-rich school

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

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

Citizenship Education in the classroom (and beyond)

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

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

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

Citizenship in process in the Boardroom

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

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

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

Citizenship Educators in the staffroom

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

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

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

Citizenship Educators and post Pandemic Landscapes

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

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

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.