Some schools in England re-opened this week, shining a spotlight on the questions and anxieties that surround the mammoth task of recovering education. In Scotland, the national Education Recovery Group was established very early so all relevant voices, including those of teachers, employers and parents, could be heard. This has meant that planning has progressed quickly and with less confusion and fewer problems than has been the case south of the border. I’ve still read and heard some strange things though, and am trying to process some of them here.
1. Schools are dangerous.
Guidance was issued last week detailing the understanding amongst the Chief Medical Officer’s Advisory Group on the risks of returning to school and, commendably, where these were majority or minority views . Whilst this doesn’t cover every scenario, at least schools have something to work with. We can continue planning for a phased return to school, knowing what to do to minimise the risk. Teachers won’t need to wear hazmat suits but careful thought will be needed around the surfaces and furnishings in classrooms and on the groupings coming into school and how to minimise interactions. Everyone will need to stay 2 metres apart. All local authorities have logistics gurus (shadowy figures, rarely seen during daylight) who are working hard on plans for additional hand-washing facilities, safe school transport and other nightmarishly complex tasks . This can only happen because of the sensible decision to work collaboratively towards an August return at the earliest. Any earlier would have been unfeasible for the significant changes that need to be made to make things safe. Parents and pupils should be reassured that a lot of thought is going into this and that schools will be as safe as possible.
2. Schools are safe.
Ok, they are; I’ve just written that above. The point I’m making is that schools are not naturally environments that are “Covid-19 secure”: it is only by making massive changes in how we access, use and run schools that we can make them safe. Every teacher, pupil and parent needs to understand that, if schools are to re-open, they must be vastly different from before. We can have far fewer pupils in at any one time and time will be needed in between different groups to clean surfaces properly. Classrooms, groupings and timetables will be very different. Serving school lunches, in any averagely-sized secondary school, is likely to be impossible. To stagger lunch service for even a few hundred pupils would take so long, and be so disruptive to the school day and teaching capacity, it is genuinely not worth bothering about. There is a big question here for schools to consider bravely: far better a highly productive morning than a full day with lunch staggered disruptively over a three hour window.
Some subjects will need a complete re-think. Take PE for example. In most school changing rooms physical distancing will be impractical and contact sports or even passing the ball will be off-limits. At the same time, we know that getting meaningful physical education is hugely important for our young people’s physical and mental wellbeing. PE teachers will rise to the challenge of transforming what they do (and
most all PE teachers could beat me up if I suggested otherwise).
3. Remote learning is bad.
Teaching is highly interactive and intuitive. It relies on a series of millions of rich interactions in the context of a safe classroom environment and trusting relationships. This can never be replicated online. But just because traditional teaching cannot take place doesn’t mean that learning isn’t happening. Across the world teachers have worked incredibly hard to learn a whole new range of skills and not just about digital platforms. Teachers are thinking deeply about the pedagogy they need to set up learning and to make it accessible and engaging for pupils. I found Cassie Buchanan’s webinar really helpful in informing my thinking about how we could keep a sense of flow in learning from week to week. Our school adopted a weekly Content > Task > Hand-in > Follow up model to structure our asynchronous approach. We quickly agreed we all needed to use the same platform and the same weekly structure to make it as easy as possible for pupils to ‘get to’ and access the learning. Our teachers spent the recent in-service days sharing their experiences, both in terms of digital tips, but also the strategies they had begun to use to build and maintain pupil engagement. We used the EFF videos on self-regulated learning to stimulate discussion and ask ourselves deep questions about how we can cultivate these dispositions in our learners both now (entirely remotely) and next term when we will have a blend of in-school and remote learning.
Is it perfect? No. Is every teacher a digital guru? No. Is every pupil 100% engaged? No. (Spoiler alert: they weren’t always 100% engaged before either!) However, amazingly, we have achieved a transformation in a whole school approach to learning in a matter of weeks. There has been a complete shift from, in the frantic few days before schools closed, hastily curating resources on a myriad of platforms “just in case we shut”, to a coherent and consistent online learning approach that the Open University would be proud of. It has been the school improvement equivalent of implementing 3 years’ worth of change in 3 months.
It was refreshing to read Neil Oliver’s piece celebrating the impact of hard-working teachers across the country and to see the early shoots of Scottish pupils developing the skills they will need to thrive in the future world of working remotely and independently. Our own workforce is now actively preparing to enhance our strong remote offer by blending it with some face-to-face teaching next term. Teachers across Scotland, and the world, should be incredibly proud of what has been achieved in such a short space of time and without access to buildings.
4. Pupils will just jump straight back in.
Of course, many pupils (and adults) are struggling without the structures of the school day, the support of teachers and the social development and wellbeing that come from being part of a school community. They are desperate to get back and we are desperate to bring them back, safely. But I suspect most parents and pupils – and many staff, myself included – have not yet got our heads around how different things will be and how the ‘normal’ that we crave to get back simply won’t exist for a while. Schools will be almost unrecognisable.
Last week we removed all of the furniture from a classroom and set it up as a Covid safe learning space: minimising surfaces and furnishings, spreading out the desks and ensuring that all humans would be positioned 2 metres apart. It is grim. I remember as a primary pupil going to visit (with a frequency I now consider inexplicable) the mock Victorian Classroom that was set up in the old Ancrum Road Primary School in Dundee: our experiment immediately reminded me of that room. School is going to look and feel vastly different but – parents and pupils – don’t worry. Teachers across Scotland are already thinking of how we can prepare and support you with this. In actual fact, the phased return that will be necessary as part of the staggered approach to education recovery will be helpful for many young people.
5. More pupils in school means better learning.
Wrong. The Scottish Government has asked schools to ensure that as many pupils as can safely return come back to school at any one time. We need to approach this ambitiously, but with a focus on learning, not numbers. One approach could be to divide every possible space into 2 metre chunks and add up the number, giving the optimum number of pupils who can attend on any given day. This would do our pupils a great disservice and lead to real inequity across the country. Different year groups need different things and all schools will still have staff (and pupils) in the shielding category who will not be available. In a secondary, the most sensible way to run S1 and S2 is to offer a Japanese style ‘home room’ set up where a small group of pupils stay in the same room and teachers move to them (but not as often as they would normally change over). Older pupils have chosen different combinations of subjects, including those delivered by colleges and other partners, so need a very different set up. In both cases, with only one or two year groups in school, crafty timetabling can ensure that pupils still access a broad curriculum. However, if Scotland starts a space race to jam the highest possible % of pupils into a building, then we swap craftiness for cack-handedness and will have to reduce the range of subjects for everyone. What’s best for pupils? Fewer days in school accessing a broad curriculum, or more time in school following a narrower set of subjects?
Importantly, keeping a smaller number of students in schools will still allow them to access – at staggered times, and in Covid safe ways we will help them to learn – the social spaces in schools. Pasi Sahlberg and others have already made the case for the importance of having self-directed social times when we return to school and this will be crucial to achieve the positive impact on students’ wellbeing that we are all so desperate to see. If we pack the school with as many pupils as possible then break times will need to be in the same classrooms pupils are working in and we will lose an opportunity for the social and unsupervised interaction that our young people have been denied during lockdown.
6. Children have fallen behind. They should just repeat last year.
Behind who? Every school in the world has been closed. Of course, pupils will have forgotten things and got out of habits; some will have regressed significantly in some areas and others will have switched off from learning completely. We know some groups of learners will have been disadvantaged by lockdown more than others and that the attainment gap will have widened. But they are returning to buildings full of professionals who will support them. This is actually the real, meaty part of education ‘recovery’ that we are going to wrestle with over the next few years. It will require the utmost creativity and resilience. But nobody needs to repeat a year; all schools are moving forwards.
7. Next year’s exams should go ahead as normal.
Bonkers! Despite all my positive arguments about remote learning, Senior Phase pupils are following courses that were designed to have far more contact time with teachers than they are ever going to experience. Pupils, parents and teachers need a clear message reassuring them that the pressure to get through the same amount of content is off and that a blended approach (to use an ‘on trend’ expression) of coursework, teacher judgement and perhaps some form of shortened exam will be applied for certification next year. I happen to think the SQA have responded reasonably well to the situation they were placed in (albeit we will find out in August what “data validation” really means) but the Scottish education community must use the exit from this crisis as an opportunity to consider whether we want the Senior Phase to continue being, for many learners, three years of high stakes all-or-nothing tests.
Now, more than ever, is the time for teachers to take the lead and ensure that decisions about education recovery are taken on exactly that basis: what will maximise learning?
- I do hope Daisy Christodoulou doesn’t come after me for plagiarising her title. It just seemed like a good idea and I’m sure she doesn’t have copyright on the word ‘myth’.
- Who am I kidding? As if Daisy Christodoulou would ever read my blog. She doesn’t even know who I am.