There’s been plenty of 4 letter words uttered within earshot of my children recently. That’s what over 100 days of frenzy, frustration and fatigue can do to a home-schooling parent who is learning how to teach online. Narrating powerpoints, marking digital textbooks and endless zooming, all whilst trying to teach entertain my own pre-school children results in letting off a little steam every now and then. So, for the sake of good manners, I’ve had to ban certain 4 letter words altogether. But there is one 4 letter word everyone working in schools is desperate to hear.
When did that simple but essential part of governing disappear?!
Schools didn’t enter lockdown with a national plan in place. It was left to school leaders, with hardly any notice at all, to fill that gap. They stepped up, without fuss because that’s what any decent leader of education does. They put the children first. School leaders have had to oversee the largest transformation of learning ever known – from the classroom to the bedroom. They’ve had to wade through DFE circular after circular to keep the school community safe. All whilst keeping their doors open to vulnerable children and key worker families.
However heroic their efforts have been, they’re not super heroes. It was not within a headteacher’s power to ensure those entitled to free school meals would be fed once schools were closed. The National Food Voucher Scheme should have been under development, perhaps even functioning, before the decision to close schools. Headteachers could not magic up more money to equip children with the technology necessary to learn throughout lockdown. The time it took for the digital divide campaign to convince the government to fund laptops for schools may have entrenched the rich-poor gap in education for years to come. Headteachers have not had permission to protect all staff in ‘at risk’ groups such as those living with elderly relatives or from ethnic minority groups disproportionately affected by Covid-19. Government guidance should have insisted these people work from home only.
A lack of national planning suggests that every child does not matter. Instead it sends a message that those at the top are relaxed about the increasing and soon to become entrenched educational divide. If Gavin Williamson still believes that ‘Conservatives will always drive up standards and opportunity for every child in this country’ – his mission statement for education only last year – there should be no option but to leave lockdown with a national plan.
This is a call for coordination from the top. This is not a clamour for centralisation. Rather a plea for the DFE to collaborate more with the profession. For it will be frontline staff who are going to deliver on promises made. Teachers who will be accountable for student progress.
As a profession, we will be the magic glue trying to hold all the broken pieces together. Surely then we deserve some say in how best to recover wellbeing and rebuild learning for children and young people?
If the Secretary of State needs a plan. How about this for a starter for 10?
P – people. We’re going to need lots of them to get students back on track. One place to start could be a government guarantee that every trainee teacher or those who had plans to start teacher training courses will be offered a job. The workforce may need diversification. To respond to the additional needs learners will have, schools will need a wider range of people working in and out of the classroom. The Department for Education is best placed to research and resource this recruitment drive.
L – learning. Most of the current debate seems to focus on how and when schools should open. There is very little being discussed openly about what happens when students are all back. Is it fair and necessary for Year 10 to sit the same number of GCSE exams next summer? Is there enough time for teachers to assess gaps in student knowledge to make the tuition scheme worthwhile? Should Ofsted widen their scope – so attention can be given to the pastoral as well as academic curriculum? There is growing recognition that wellbeing should form the foundation of any approach to reopening schools. On this firm foundation, future learning will stand. Perhaps a national strategy would be wise, setting out steps for schools to take together. This would secure equitable learning experiences for every child.
A – access to aftercare. Nobody can argue this period of lockdown will have zero effect on wellbeing. Coming back to school for some of my students marked the first time they’d left the house at all in twelve weeks. Pre-pandemic schools were struggling to support student wellbeing properly. With tighter budgets, wrap around help for young people and their families has been cut. The government should send a strong signal that addressing the trauma young people have experienced is essential by assigning a mental health counsellor to every school, as a minimum.
N – national investment for a national service. Piecemeal preparations are not enough. A funding announcement one week, relaxation of the social distancing rules in the weeks to come does not suggest Whitehall has grasped the severity of what’s happening in education. It certainly does not guarantee that every child will recover the losses of lockdown fully. Time and money is what’s needed to do this properly. Investment in education is overdue. The government’s £1bn ‘Covid-19 catch up’ commitment is a welcome first step.
That said, handing this sum of money directly to schools – rather than paying external organisations for short-term contacts with tutors the young person has no prior relationship with – would have been a more desirable, longer term investment in education. Future funding must go directly to the frontline – particularly as the cost of school safety measures and the recently announced teacher pay rise are expected to be paid out of existing, over-stretched budgets.
The blank page staring back at the young people I teach can be intimidating. The flashing cursor sets hearts aflutter. The ache as the pen weighs down heavy hands. This feels like a blank page moment. My advice to the Secretary of State is the same as my advice to students – it will feel easier and be better with a plan.
For the sake of all our children and the future of our country, please put a plan in place soon.
Kiran Mahil (she/her)
Teacher and School Leader in East London.
Very tired mum.