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.

Schools as the creators of lifelong, life wide learners

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

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

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

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

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

4.Good grades are important but wholly insufficient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capturing the lessons of lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Lessons from Lockdown: education beyond Covid-19

Laying the foundations for an education system built for tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breadth and balance for an uncertain future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The total learned experience

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

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

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

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

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

Alliances for change

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

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

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