• The biggest single cost of school closure has been the widening gap between the most and least advantaged pupils.
• Those pupils from poorer families, especially those who lacked the necessary technology, were often not supported to learn.
• The government announced that Oak National Academy would be given £4.3 million funding to provide lessons for pupils for the 2020/21 academic year as a contingency plan for the continuing pandemic.
• The government had no clear plan for re-opening schools, and it’s up to headteachers whether or not teachers wear face-coverings. The government is not providing regular Covid-19 testing for school staff.
At the beginning of March, we were becoming increasingly nervous about what seemed to be a rising threat from a new coronavirus. By the end of the third week, with over 10,000 deaths recorded according to the ONS, the nation went into lockdown and schools were closed. With no guidance from the DfE, schools were left to work out how best to offer their pupils some sort of continuing education. Independent schools, anxious to retain the support of fee-paying parents, quickly turned to Google Classroom and continued to teach a full timetable remotely. In the maintained sector things were different. Some schools used their website to put up work for students to complete at home, some used Google Classroom or some other form of virtual teaching. In the meantime, they remained open for the children of key workers and the most vulnerable.
Now, with schools re-opening as a government priority, we are entering a transitional stage, with as many questions as there are answers as we prepare to live with ‘the new normal’. With little experience of a worldwide pandemic on which to draw, we cannot yet tell how long this transitional ‘normal’ will last. The 1918 Influenza pandemic, which carried off half a million souls worldwide, lasted until at least 1920 and we can expect this latest coronavirus to be around for some time to come. There will be some return to the familiar, but some things may be changed forever.
What have we learned?
Perhaps the biggest single cost of school closure has been the widening of the gap between the most and least advantaged pupils. Those who had access to the technology and the support of engaged parents may have experienced some dislocation of their learning but managed to access some form of lessons on a regular basis. However, those pupils whose parents were preoccupied with simply surviving the crisis, especially those who lacked the technology, either watched a lot of television, played games on their phones or hung out with their mates. Some were recruited by County Lines gangs and drawn into crime.
The government was remarkably slow to give schools the support they needed and offered no cohesive advice. It would have been relatively simple for a task group to evaluate the available resources and give schools precise and specific advice about the preferred way to proceed. As it was, we had to find our own way through the mess, with tech-savvy schools making great use of Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams, while others tried to set up Google Hangouts or Skype calls. Slowly, as tools like Zoom and Webex came into play, some schools began to use these, sometimes alongside other solutions. Some schools simply provided material on their website. But the problem came with not knowing if pupils were actually using the material. Some solutions allowed attendance to be both tracked and followed up. Too often, however, whatever schools provided was hit and miss in its take-up. Most schools telephoned most or some of their pupils, but some had little or no ongoing contact with home – and the DfE set out no expectations or rules.
Despite headline-grabbing promises of giving laptops to 230,000 vulnerable young people, the DfE signally failed to meet this target, so many of the pupils whom the scheme was intended to help simply extended their disadvantage. And, even where the laptops were delivered when they were promised, the lack of a cohesive plan limited their impact.
One very successful outcome of the public health emergency, has been the creation of Oak National Academy. Initially spawned by the Reach Academy Trust, Oak National Academy provides a full timetable of lessons across all age ranges from 4–16. It even includes weekly assemblies. It began on Sunday 19 April 2020, and quickly received the backing of the DfE. Two months later, the government announced that Oak National Academy would be given £4.3 million funding to provide lessons for pupils for the 2020/21 academic year as a contingency plan for the continuing pandemic. All of which suggests that there is, at the heart of the DfE, some concern that a full return to school may not be as straightforward as it hoped.
So, we have learned that technology may provide some form of continuing schooling in extreme situations and we have learned that, to work properly, there needs to be a cohesive national plan.
What will persist?
It is certain that, in the medium term at least, some lessons and, importantly, some homework support, can be delivered remotely. With teachers able to draw on Oak resources, and the many other resources prepared by teachers and shared on TES, there is likely to be a continued use of shared material. I provided ‘Grandad’s Virtual School’ for my Year 4 grandson and taught 68 lessons across the full curriculum. I drew on the work of others and my material is available for others to use
As a Chair of Governors, I can also say with some certainly that many of our team meetings will continue to take place via Zoom and that a mixed economy of face-to-face and virtual meetings will remain. School staff meetings suddenly look a lot more flexible and governor monitoring visits acquire several new and useful dimensions.
What will the impact be on our pupils and students?
The government has told us repeatedly of the need to get schools open to prevent further learning loss. It is certainly true that we will need very quickly to close the gap between disadvantaged young people and the rest. But what of the general loss of learning? Research by John Hattie suggests that students who were accessing online learning identified some positive aspects:
• working at their own pace
• having time for other interests and hobbies
• not having to get up so early
• being comfortable at home
• being able to spend time with family
• not having to travel
• being able to do more work – more focused
• having fewer distractions
• engaging with friends
• having responsibility and accountability for their own learning.
Hattie also takes examples where students have lost ten weeks of schooling, for example after Hurricane Katrin, Cyclone Tracy or the Christchurch earthquakes. His research suggests that the impact is minimal – that kids make up the lost time pretty quickly.
What is more problematical is the non-learning-related impacts. And this is where we need to focus our actions. In an important paper by Michael Fullan et al, Education reimagined: The future of learning, the authors identify three phases:
• Phase 1 Disruption
• Phase 2 Transition
• Phase 3 Reimagining
As we enter Phase 2, the authors remind us that there is ‘no blueprint for re-opening schools’. However, they stress that:
Leaders will need to remember that this period represents profound change and loss for adults and children alike. Considerations must include the impacts of a weakened economy, food insecurity, widespread unemployment, housing instability, increased mobility, increased abuse and addiction, while working within an overwhelmed health and social service. We cannot underestimate how these factors have shaken those living through the disruption. Rushing to re-open without addressing trauma and wellbeing needs further exacerbates an already strained situation. (page 10)
So, before we can address what a future, hybrid, model of education will look like in practice, we must ensure that our schools are safe, welcoming and non-threatening places where pupils can recover their equilibrium. In the primary school that I chair, we set up a governors/leaders Covid-19 Task Group to monitor our ongoing provision for key worker children, our partial re-opening and now our plans for the 2020/21 academic year. To do this, we used many of these ideas. As well as monitoring the physical arrangements, we asked questions around social and emotional wellbeing – from the perspective of parents and staff as well as our pupils. We see these as fundamental to a successful transition. Remember, we are simply moving from one form of uncertainty to another and our long-term success can only be built on the foundations of this careful settling in time.
Sadly, the DfE continues to fail in its support, with Nick Gibb suggesting that it’s up to headteachers to decide whether or not teachers wear face-coverings, and refusing to provide regular Covid-19 testing for school staff, who are surely now in the front line. The lack of testing and the time lag between test and result is proving a real problem, with some pupils missing school because they have been in contact with Covid-19 outside school and cannot get tested. The Fullan et al paper includes a really helpful ‘Re-opening Schools Tool’.
In the meantime, our school’s Covid-19 Task Group review tool is included here as ‘Checklist – School re-opening planning: A document for governors and leaders’ in the hope that it may be of some help.
• Hattie, J. and Cox, S. (2020) Build Back Better, Osiris Webinar
• Michael Fullan, Joanne Quinn, Max Drummy and Mag Gardner (2020), Education reimagined: The future of learning, Microsoft: https://bit.ly/30YypFX
Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
About the author
John Viner has taught in both primary and secondary schools, with a long history of successful primary school leadership. He is now a senior tutor for an ITT provider, an S48 inspector and writer.