Writing for The Leaders Council, Andrew Clowes, headteacher of Hey With Zion Primary School in Oldham, Greater Manchester, reflects on the Covid-19 crisis and questions what the post-pandemic world may look like for the education sector.
Managing the pandemic has been a tremendous, energy-sapping feat at all levels; but are we as a nation missing an opportunity to accelerate reforms in the face of this? Are we letting slip a chance to rethink how we live our lives and lead towards an improved state for us all?
Each step back to “normality” is welcomed, but do we ask enough where we want the roadmap out of lockdown to go? Is what we had before really all we want?
We are at a critical time: we have had enormous disruption from Covid; we have left the EU; the unity of the UK is being challenged. Now is a time to ask ourselves how we want to live in the years ahead.
After the crisis of World War Two came the introduction of the NHS. Where are the current big ideas to enrich our lot?
I am a primary school headteacher. I have spent most of my life in education. I have seen much rebranding from above but not sufficient major questioning of what we do and why, and how we do it; this questioning is now due.
I have seen schools become “academies”, I have seen O Levels become GCSEs, I have seen numbers replace letters to denominate grades, I have seen headmasters and headmistresses become known as headteachers, principals and heads of school, the Department for Education [DfE] has been rebranded DFEE, DFES, DCSF and then became the DfE again. “Key objectives” have recently become “sticky knowledge”, English was renamed Literacy, Mathematics became Numeracy, and now they are English and Mathematics again.
However, we need more than this tired repackaging of the same old thing.
In schools, and I challenge leaders in other sectors for a bit of self-evaluation here as to whether the same applies in their field, I ask that we consider more than just another tweak of the National Curriculum, another “model” curriculum like we have just been sent for Music.
Do we want the holiday pattern as now, or is it as it is just because it has been inherited from the past?
Do we really want the school day to be from about 9:00 to around 15:30 for most children?
Do we want the same old subjects now as those that existed ten, twenty, fifty, or one hundred years ago?
Is this exam system, tweaked and tweaked for many years, actually fit for purpose?
Post-pandemic, schools are upping their game somewhat with ICT provision. But the changes don’t boil down to a great deal more than tinkering.
This is not any “manifesto for schools”, but unless society thinks that our education system is pretty much the best it could possibly be [and I do not sense that this is the case] then we should be asking what we can do to improve it. We should be asking bigger questions than for example whether we want to test children at age seven. Personally, I do not.
How about, to begin with: as schools do three jobs, namely education, child minding, and social welfare checking, is there scope for major structural change? Could schools all open from 7:00 to 19:00 and incorporate childminding either side of the lessons? There is a shortage of foster carers, so could we develop a boarding facility at schools for children in care who cannot be found homes? Social care, organised at borough level, is struggling and it is known that communication lapses between different sectors have let children down. So, could social care be managed in smaller groups, perhaps even linked to schools and/or academy trusts?
Can we make our minds up as a nation whether we want academies and trusts or schools?
Is the mandatory school day right to be the same duration for all children? Perhaps a compulsory three hours for core subjects like English and Mathematics, plus an option of home learning subject to ongoing approval of quality by the school could be better? Maybe we could have childcare available from 7:00 to 19:00 as required by working parents? Should teenagers’ school days start later to fit in with their sleeping patterns?
Schools have been encouraging “independent learning” for years, so can school pupils devise the content of their own curriculum? A traditional lesson about Roman history might focus on gladiators or Virgil, but the pupil might prefer to learn about Roman food, chariot racing, the political system, Tacitus or Pliny. If the pupil’s heritage is not of western Europe, they may prefer to learn from a different culture altogether. With a reduction in the mandatory hours of attendance and a more independent style of learning, supported by access to ICT, this could be possible.
The content which is to remain statutory for the same old subjects can be refreshed. We can have less Pythagoras and more taxation in Mathematics, less obsessing over fronted adverbials and the subjunctive for primary children, and a return to writing for enjoyment, appropriately for the context. An opinion of mine is that a Stoic philosophy module should be compulsory for every first-year undergraduate to build their resilience.
And finally: which elements of the current exam system are really needed? We must ask ourselves this. Can we pass more responsibility to employers and universities for setting their own assessments? I ask you to consider: were your own O Level or GCSE results accurate indicators of your performance in your role?
There are many alternative suggestions which could be discussed, and I would love to see that happen. But in education, and I suggest elsewhere, we do what we do today very much according to a template made by our predecessors and these things are only ever tinkered with.
It is hard to make changes of direction; to achieve the above in schools would take redefining jobs in schools and some in social care too, there would be major union and building issues too. Logistically it would be impossible for one school to accomplish on its own. But our predecessors made major decisions and took major action when they created the NHS, so greater change is possible.
What will be the legacy of our generation? Are we just tinkerers?