Re-opening English schools: challenges for the long term

school 900
"If schools fully re-open with the objective of a return to the status quo a great opportunity will have been lost."

As school leaders come to terms with the announcement that a full re-opening of schools will take place on 8th March, there is a host of operational issues that still require attention.

Headteachers have been brilliant at adapting their schools to embrace learning during Covid-19. Blended learning is now the norm and teachers have reached out in the community. Anxieties about the safety of re-opening remain with new cases remaining high nationally and school staff not being prioritised for vaccination. In the short-term this presents enormous challenges to school leaders as they create the post Lockdown 3 modus operandi. I have no doubt that they will succeed – but once again, lack of consultation with the profession has sorely tested confidence and good will.

Regardless of what is to take place there still needs to be a focus on the long term. Ccurrently the debate is polarised between the ‘catch up’ and return to business-as-usual lobby and those who argue that it’s time for a radical makeover in what schools teach and where they sit in their local communities. A further division is apparent between the pessimists, including Robert Halfon, the chair of the Education Select Committee who prophesised the ‘four horsemen of the education apocalypse galloping towards our children’ (education attainment, mental health, safeguarding and £40,000 loss of earnings) and the optimistic headteachers who see resilient children being damaged by the pathologizing of normal fears and worries. Indeed, some teenagers report that being bombarded with questions about their mental health is already making them ill.

Earlier this year the government appointed a ‘recovery tsar’ (perhaps not the best title given the history of the Romanov dynasty) to oversee a ‘comprehensive programme of catch-up’. Sir Kevan Collins describes himself as a teacher first-and-last which is reassuring as he definitely understands schools. But many are asking ‘catch up to what?’ English education policy has been dominated by the ‘hyper-normalisation’ of school pupils who are weighed and measured by more tests and exams than in any almost every other developed country.

What gets measured gets done in schools from phonics screening with 6 year olds to A levels and BTECs for 18 year olds in a culture of government surveillance. Teachers’ are no longer considered professionally capable of assessing their pupils’ progress so a panopticon has been constructed to ensure they are in constant sight.

What doesn’t get measured?

A recent UNICEF report revealed that children’s well-being in the United Kingdom is ranked well behind most European countries. For a government obsessed with league tables, this has received surprisingly little attention from the Secretary of State for Education and his team. The UK is 27th overall in this gallery of shame. If this were the Programme for International Student Assessment  (PISA) - a study by OECD to evaluate 15-year-old school pupils’ performance internationally there would be an outcry but because it’s the softer stuff, nobody is concerned in Whitehall. Apparently, we are doing well in the international table of fronted adverbials so the garden is rosy according to Schools Minister Nick Gibb.

Pre-Covid, school leaders were flagging their concerns about children and young people’s mental health and identifying it as their number one concern. Social media pressures are leading to growing numbers of girls with body dysmorphia who feel compelled to photoshop any images of themselves. Diagnoses of eating disorders are multiplying. Children as young as seven are stumbling into online pornography with resulting confusion and revulsion.

None of this is restricted to the UK. What’s concerning is the apparent indifference policy makers hold to such issues by just reviewing the core curriculum. In England, we are anchored in a neo-grammar school set of subjects designed to reinforce what teachers learnt at school and feed the GCSE and A level machines. There’s little space to address well-being and the rather pressing matter of the planet burning up. The Oak National Academy (a repository of online lessons), created during the first lockdown and championed by the Department for Education, has many merits but its creators could not resist including Latin in its first click and collect menu. Good to see such forward thinking.

A few years before Michael Gove unleashed chaos in the English education system by rushing through the Academies Act and inveigling thousands of schools to break away from local authorities, England was on the foothills of a social and educational revolution. The Children Act 2004 created a new model which pulled together all local agencies around children and families. It was one of the most progressive pieces of children’s legislation globally.

The Green Paper Every Child Matters which paved the way for the act was informed by the views of young people. They were clear that policy should be founded on five mantras: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and securing economic well-being. The ‘recovery tsar needs to look no further for inspiration and wisdom than these five pillars.

If schools fully re-open with the objective of a return to the status quo a great opportunity will have been lost. UNICEF has provided the baseline for a re-assessment of the place of schools within English and UK society and to recalibrate their unique contribution. The case for a ‘head, hands and heart’ curriculum with its balance between the academic, affective and practical skills is powerful.

There are examples of schools that have found that gap in the hedge to offer an innovative and inclusive curriculum fit for the 21st Century. Look no further than School 21 in Newham or the XP schools in Doncaster. In Birmingham, the arts-infused, UNICEF Rights Respecting Award Gold standard, Nelson Mandela primary school is right up there with the best.

Sir Kevan Collins would do well to talk with the children at Nelson Mandela school to understand what’s needed for the long haul. We can arrange an invitation I am sure.

Professor Colin Diamond CBE - Professor of Educational Leadership.