Writing for the Leaders Council, Bellfield Junior School headteacher Nigel Attwood discusses the many problems that Covid-19 has thrust upon the education sector and society as a whole, urging the government to show robust leadership for all to help guide the country to a more prosperous future.
If the Covid crisis has done nothing else in the last 12 months, it has highlighted, more than ever before, the serious disconnect between the Government’s understanding of what happens in schools… and the reality.
Successive governments have made changes without any real consultation, have kept adding to the curriculum, reduced the services that support children, increased the amount of things schools have to pay for/ support out of their budgets and, despite the claims, reduced funding per child so that even with the much lauded £7.1billion over the next 3 years being added, it will still leave schools at about the same funding as 10 years ago. Put this altogether with the high pressure, high stakes accountability systems that affects staff, families and, more importantly, children, and you have a system that needs change before it fails children – over and over again.
The new catchphrase from the DfE and the Government is about ‘catch-up’ – but what does this actually mean? Is this a reality? Catch-up is purely based on what the expectations are from the Government’s curriculum and exam-based system – the expectation every child will learn exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time, at exactly the same pace. That was never a reality before the current crisis. Every child, every person, learns at different paces, at different times, has different learning styles and has different experiences – learning means something different to every person. And the effects from the last 12 months – academically, socially and for personal wellbeing – will not be a quick fix.
It will take time, patience and a coherent, strong plan.
What could we be doing differently? Let’s take the two top performing countries, educationally, in Europe – Finland and Estonia (Estonia has risen quickly, and overtaken the UK, in international tables in the last decade) - and compare. One thing that stands out immediately when you compare systems is trust in the profession. Estonia: teachers have a relatively high level of freedom to take risks in how they design lessons; Finland: their working conditions, trust and respect help them to commit to their chosen profession for a lifetime.
So, surely there must be a strong accountability system to get such good results? In Finland, there is no standardised testing. In fact, the Finnish education system is not just about academic subjects, but 21st-century competencies and providing equal opportunities for all to succeed in life, with arts, music, manual skills and other non-academic areas having the same importance as traditional school subjects. In Estonia, there is a national curriculum, but relatively few measures to hold schools to account through results and a similar focus as Finland on all subjects, not just focussing on academic subjects. Both countries have targets within their curriculums, but teachers and principals are trusted professionals who know what is best for the children in their schools.
Three things must change in the UK.
Firstly, trust in the profession. Every school, every cohort, every community is different and comparing schools, like for like, in a high accountability/ ‘one size fits all’ exam system immediately gives unfair advantages and unfair disadvantages to children and schools. Part of this is adjusting the National Curriculum and exam system, rethinking what knowledge and skills are needed to succeed in a 21st century world, to support the reintroduction of lost manufacturing in the UK and, most importantly, so all children have the opportunity to succeed – in turn, helping the UK succeed in the future. @EduPolicyInst have recently identified the issues with teacher recruitment and retention: ‘Teachers are much more likely to exit during their first few years of teaching– 1 in 5 new teachers leave the profession after their first two years, while 4 in 10 leave after five years. These alarming high exit rates are increasing for each successive teaching cohort.’ In fact, while schools are seeing a 10% increase year on year in pupil numbers, teacher numbers are over 7% lower than 10 years ago. When will the Government realise that leaders, teachers and other education staff do the job because they want the best for the children in their school? Supportive accountability would be far more productive and successful, remembering that the welfare and morale of staff in schools is vital.
Secondly, funding must be a priority. Schools budgets have become stagnant. The Government claims that they are funding at ‘record levels’ and let’s be honest, this is true, if looking at hard numbers only. But let’s look at this in context. If the numbers of children remained exactly the same each year, funding would have to go up each year just to keep up with inflation and fuel costs. But funding is per pupil, and the numbers of extra children in the system has been increasing by an average of over 70,000 each year in the last ten years. However, the UK spent 4.1% of GDP in 2020 compared with 4.4% in 2017. Compare this with Finland and Estonia: 5.7% and 5.0% respectively.
And, finally, children’s services must be a priority. Children Centres, children’s mental health services, children’s social care, paediatric services – the list is endless. The Children’s Commissioner’s January 2020 report stated: ‘…1 in 6 children (16%) of children 5-16 were identified as having a probable mental health disorder, rising from 1 in 9 (10.8%) in 2017’ – and this is likely to be much higher after the last 12 months – but with only 1 in 3 children needing support able to access support, and of those, only 20% were seen in 4 weeks or less. Since 2010, funding for children’s and young people’s services fell by 23%, including £770million less on social care and early intervention services being slashed by 46% (figures from Action for Children and gov.uk websites). Ms Longfield talked about the differences ‘...between children’s needs and the services available, which was already considerable, is likely to have grown much greater’. And the effects of these cuts? In the DfE’s own report on Children’s & Young People’s Wellbeing (Oct 2020), it states: ‘Recent reports from both PISA and UNICEF have shown that the wellbeing of children in England and the UK remains relatively low compared with other countries, and trends from the UK Household Longitudinal Study… indicate downward trends in wellbeing over time’. In my opinion – pretty damning.
And guess which service picks this up? Schools. Dame Alison Peacock stated on 21.9.20: ‘The harsh impact of Covid-19 particularly for those in areas of disadvantage are all too visible. Even before the pandemic, teachers were telling us about the increasing role they were being asked to play in supporting families with financial worries, housing issues, safeguarding and domestic violence.’ As an example, my school currently pays out over £90,000 per year on Pastoral Care and family support (almost 6% of our budget). As SAGE reported back in November 2020, the current crisis exacerbates the educationally disadvantaged and the pressures that children and families are under with schools ‘rightly’ focussing on children’s welfare and material needs.
The last 12 months has shown that the Covid crisis is compounding the issues many children already faced and extended the issues disadvantaged families suffer. It more than highlights that there needs to be a coherent, well thought out plan. A plan that properly reviews where we are and, much more importantly, what children need to be where we want our children to be in 10-20 years’ time. A plan that allows schools to be places of learning, of curiosity, of developing 21st century life skills and knowledge, that properly funds schools and children’s services to ensure that our country gives EVERY child the opportunity to succeed and a plan that means our country’s future is bright.