Schools are where children look after their young until they’re old enough to take on the mantle of adult citizenship. They should model a better world. If we want a better future, we need to care for our young people better. Schools and their classrooms are test-beds for this and they should transmit and embody three things. First, the learning we value and want to pass on. Second, the attributes that children need in order to prosper as adults. Third, the characteristics that build up the common good.
However, in recent times education has become skewed so that it is synonymous with assessment. That’s why we hear this bizarre and despairing language of children being ‘left behind’ and needing to ‘catch up’. Behind what? With whom? Time and learning are not inextricably linked. Children missed six months of school, but that doesn’t make them stupider. They just know less stuff. So, examine less.
Further, the national outrage about the disproportionate effect that missed schooling has on already-disadvantaged students is just disingenuous. Of course they were affected more, because poverty is expressed in housing, stability and possessions. But they have always suffered. They have been left behind their prosperous peers for a very long time. Let’s not pretend that this is new, though a bit of national self-flagellation for our studied refusal to look the problem in the face is long overdue. Keir Starmer has called for an inquiry into this achievement gap, and he’s right.
Children need schools that represent and strive for what’s best in life. At this particular time, we need intelligent, sensible and centrally-driven adjustment to exams and assessment in 2021 and an acceptance that remote learning cannot replace school not just because lots of children don’t have a laptop, but because the value of the relationship with learning brokered by the classroom experience is irreducible. If schools close, teachers are remote, in every sense.
Robert Halfon, King of the Select Committee described school closure as a national disaster and put out some sensible challenges to government to do better. He’s always worth listening to, but sorting this out is a wicked problem, where every attempt to help seems to make it worse.
So many disadvantaged students are part of the ‘forgotten third’. No matter how hard they work, they’ll only get grades 1 to 3 at GCSE. We’ve decided, nationally, to call that a fail, insofar as grades 4 and above are passes. What’s their motivation to tune into complicated remote learning? Why should they fight with their families for the single device just to be told that their work won’t ever meet the grade? From where do they get the resilience in circumstances with which most adults would struggle? What can we learn from this to change an assessment system that demands self-directed learning while discarding a third of its learners?
The demands on schools to sort out the effects of lockdown in terms of young people’s mental health as well as attendance, on top of their learning are next to impossible. There is no capacity in the system because there is no money. Money buys time in school, of extra teachers to make classes smaller, for IT technicians to manage the huge number of extra machines needed in schools and attached from home, for teachers to have time when they’re not teaching to plan their remote learning, for counsellors and attendance officers. The blessed National Tutoring Programme about which we are being bombarded with dense information this week will be hugely challenging to run. Who will supervise inexperienced strangers trying to encourage the disaffected to renew their relationship with ideas? How reliably will they do a very difficult job? Where will the time come from to chase up the reluctant and the defaulters?
And in the meantime, what am I to do about the extra hundred year 12s we’ve taken on, about the space and time they need?
Anyway, the timings went a bit awry so I had to say all this in a minute and a half. I probably didn’t even need that long to say that what we really need are policies to end poverty.
When it was over I managed a line-up and fired a class of year 7s towards lesson 3. One of them literally jumped for joy. ‘Computer Science! They have spinning chairs.’ Oh, to be 11.