It’s time to talk about the new normal for schools

The class of 2020 will never forget their summer without exams. But what seemed unusual last term will pale in comparison with the seismic changes Scottish education is about to witness.

The First Minister has announced that physical distancing must remain in place until a vaccine is available. We must re-think – radically, deeply and creatively – how we “do” school in line with our new way of living.

For much of the coming session, schools cannot have all of their pupils in the building on the same day. Who should be prioritised? Senior pupils working towards qualifications and transitions, or younger year groups with perhaps greater wellbeing needs? Should secondaries alternate between dedicated days for BGE pupils and days for Senior Phase (S4-6)? Would alternate weeks be better? Safer? Just what is the maximum number of pupils you can fit into a Covid-safe classroom (a question considered brilliantly by Blair Minchin). Perhaps English and Maths teachers will finally discover the benefits of practical-sized classes, de-bunking the myth that children need greater supervision with the Bunsen burner than with the gerund (despite all our disagreeing). (Sorry).

Spring time is when many of us cover topics that simply must be taught outside. Where else can you teach Housman properly but under the shade of a cherry tree? Danish schools returned this week, taking as much learning as possible outdoors and Scottish teachers will exploit this opportunity to the full. As we head into autumn though, I’d guess this will become a less attractive option for all 5 periods of Higher Physics. Perhaps schools will follow the example of supermarkets and have clear lines at 2 metre intervals throughout social spaces. But what should we do if (when?) young people, deprived of peer contact for so long, decide to cross them? What happens for the young child who is stuck with their shoe laces, can’t wipe their nose, or just needs a hug from a friend?

In larger schools, having even two year groups in a building means 400-500 youngsters. Will it actually be possible for them to move through corridors every 50 minutes and observe distancing rules, or do we need something different? How will our transport (and teaching!) contracts cope with flexible school days? It is the time in the academic year when timetablers, having elegantly re-arranged the last few periods of S3 French, step-back with a hubristic grin and gaze at their gleaming matrices, desperate to explain their marvellous creations – slowly – to colleagues unfamiliar with the dark arts. Should they rip them up? Will these timetables ever be fully realised if the new normal needs new structures? We need to adapt the school day and week to minimise risk and maximise learning.

Across the country schools set up, seemingly overnight, new ways of teaching remotely and providing childcare for key workers; these will still be needed. Every pupil will need access to an engaging, user-friendly digital platform for the days it’s not their turn to be in school. Every single classroom in Scotland just got flipped. Royally. We must think deeply about how this changes our pedagogy for the coming session.

How employers and unions advise on PPE will be a crucial factor in the big question of “when?” we return. And, as advice on shielding becomes more detailed, we will learn which of our colleagues and pupils will stay at home indefinitely and consider how to support them.

But all of this is merely the starter task. Highly complex challenges lie ahead. How do schools continue to deliver their role in identifying and responding to wellbeing needs, GIRFEC and child protection concerns? How can we best support pupils with complex needs over the next year? The world of work changed unrecognisably overnight and, if economic predictions are even half true, the labour market for future school leavers will be even more complex and challenging than it was 5 weeks ago. Preparing young people to navigate this has never been more important but business and industry will have less capacity to support our DYW activity.

With the current focus on estimates for this year’s SQA candidates, it seems a tad gauche to pose a question about the 2021 exam diet. But it needs to be asked. By August, an entire cohort of Scottish children will have had their learning certified, and been awarded qualifications, without ever knowing the chill of an exam hall, the sound of 200 pens scribbling in synergy or the smell of a fusty invigilator. They have learned deep knowledge, skills and concepts. They will go on to wonderful things and they will cope with them. The next destination in their learner journey will welcome them with open arms (and will probably never make them sit an exam either). It turns out that we can trust teachers after all. We will have evidence that we do not need exams.

If we know now that the 2021 qualification cohort will have significantly less direct teaching than their predecessors, is it fair to assess them using the papers that are already written and locked in a Dalkeith vault? No. They too will need something different.

The rationale for Scotland’s Curriculum and the indispensability of the 4 capacities have been reinforced by the Covid-19 crisis. That same crisis has exposed the irrelevance of exams to real-life challenges. We have made commendable progress over the past decade in our approaches to teaching, learning and curriculum. I am not arguing we abolish our national exam system overnight (thought about it!) but it is time for certification to catch up. It is time for Scotland to stop being the country that assesses practical woodwork and hospitality with unseen written tests.

The Scottish education community has risen admirably to the challenges of the last few weeks. It will embrace the coming session with the same courage and creativity. Let’s take our inspirationally resilient First Minister at her word and engage in a grown-up conversation about how we do school for the new normal. Let’s be optimistic: from crisis comes progress.

Caveat 1: In the unlikely event anyone (I know) reads this, I am not saying any of this will happen in the school I am privileged to call my workplace. It is merely an attempt to un-burst my head! (“I write to know what I think”, Joan Didion)

Caveat 2: Timetablers are good people, especially our timetabler.

Caveat 3: Invigilators are really good people. You all smell lovely and I’m sorry.

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