I don’t want schools to “get back to normal”.
It’s tempting to crave a return to life before this horrible pandemic struck. There’s no doubt that those of us who love the buzz of a school community, the thrill of teaching, the boundless energy of children, have missed those compelling and life-affirming interactions.
But inside we know a simple truth: “normal” was not right. Normal for schools had become unbalanced, at times unhinged. Tunnel vision. A pressure that was unhealthy, often toxic; Ofsted inspections, high-stakes exams, the crowding out of creativity. Normal was vindictive: 30% labelled as failures each year, after 12 years of education, to satisfy the normal distribution of the GCSE exam bell curve. Normal meant too many committed and creative teachers battling against the odds: 40% leaving the profession within five years. Normal could be dispiriting, with growing mental health problems in young people. Normal was scarred by deep inequalities, now further exposed by Covid-19. And in the compelling words of Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, normal meant educating people to become “second-class robots”, rather than developing the human skills that are increasingly what will matter most.
So, yes, I want school to reopen safely to every child in the country. But getting back to “normal” is not what we need.
We need every child’s voice to be heard and valued in the classroom and each child’s learning properly supported
Many school leaders and teachers are of a similar mind. There has been a change of mood, born out of a cocktail of anger, frustration, commitment to social justice and resolve. Headteachers and teachers have worked under immense stress to provide simultaneously an on-site provision for key workers and the most vulnerable and online distance learning (some having to rapidly learn how to do this from scratch). It has entailed confronting real hardship, delivering food parcels, children’s toys, laptops and regularly checking in and providing much-needed social and emotional support for families.
The breaking of trust between government and the frontline at this crucial time (the result of too many insensitive, late or contradictory announcements) has perhaps strangely resulted in a growing sense of empowerment in the profession, a desire to take control of our own destiny.
At Big Education (a growing social enterprise and group of schools committed to providing a more expansive education), we have been bringing together ideas and insights for renewal from a powerful range of passionate, thoughtful and dynamic people in the sector. Our new website has a mission to use this period wisely to improve how schools are run. Key strands for future reform are emerging.
First: rebalancing our schools. Covid-19 has made us reflect on what makes us centred as human beings. It has become clearer to us, as parents and teachers, that academic ability is not enough. To flourish, we need a balance between what we call “head, heart and hand” – knowledge, wellbeing, problem-solving and creativity. That is why an obsession with academic “catch up” in the coming months at the expense of student wellbeing would be the wrong approach. We need every child’s voice – the full range of diversity – to be heard and valued in the classroom and each child’s learning properly supported. The Observer’s manifesto rightly stressed this point and there is an obvious need for extra government funding for mental health services and enrichment activities and not just one-to-one tutors.
Second: we need smarter assessment and intelligent accountability. Ofsted inspections have rightly been suspended, as have league tables (neither of which produces the breadth of information parents need), and it would be wrong to have them return next year as schools are picking up the pieces after the pandemic. Schools need time to breathe. And the consensus is now overwhelming that Ofsted needs an overhaul, with the possibility of it being repurposed, from the crude labelling of schools, to sharing good practice across the system.
Many are also taking this opportunity rightly to rethink exams. Lord Baker, one of the architects of GCSEs, has joined a growing call for them to be replaced, with a number of groups, including a state/independent coalition, thinking hard about crafting a better system that measures the full range of student achievements.
Third: skilful use of technology. Until this extraordinary forced experiment, where the world’s teachers had to learn to teach online overnight, technology has often been underused or badly used in schools. Now, all but the deliberately contrary can see its many benefits: collaborative tools to aid student learning; flipped learning, where students consume the knowledge first and then discuss it with teachers.
Parents now have more options to support their children, though the choice can become bewildering at times. Video conferencing can be used when people cannot turn up to parents’ evenings. Professionals from dispersed multi-agency teams can support learners with special educational needs more easily on video calls. Teacher resources have been made available online to students, for them to work on in a more self-directed way. Digital portfolios can showcase student work and emerging skills, and make young people more accountable for their learning.
Fourth: a different type of school leadership, a different kind of teacher. Many teachers have been liberated by being off the exam treadmill, some describing having far more in-depth curriculum discussions and the ability to spend proper time collaborating. This is a glimpse of a more sustainable and enriching teaching profession. Many school leaders have found a new voice and new priorities, including giving attention to staff wellbeing and rethinking the micro-management that characterises so many schools. Our new Big Leadership Adventure programme is designed to nurture leaders who want to build a more balanced, agile and expansive education system.
In the future, one more quality, finally, is needed in abundance – not just from schools but government, too: imagination. As we come out of the crisis, we must urgently ask whether what we are doing is fit for purpose, particularly given the bleak post-pandemic economic world. We need to imagine afresh what a great education, a big education, looks like, so we can come back stronger. It would be sad if, next June, we were back in a “normal” that no one really liked.
In the words of Emily Dickinson: “The possible’s slow fuse is lit by the imagination.”