School recovery: a working definition

What should it be? A expensive summer school which the wrong children will turn up to? Longer school days? Forcing teachers to give up their weekends and holidays to teach catch-up? These ideas are all being proposed in some form or other by people with a very narrow and simplistic view of what schools do.

As with all complex problems, how (and who) defines the problem is critical. The ideas  offered above make absolute sense if you define the problem in a certain way and make particular assumptions. Here is the problem definition that these advocates probably have in mind:

Children have missed months of school. This means they have not been taught lots of content, particularly in the state sector where schools are less effective and didn’t teach online lessons all day. To make things worse, many students didn’t do the work that was set: particularly those from less affluent families because they don’t work very hard, even when they are in school. The result of this is we have a ‘gap’. This gap is between what children would have been taught and what they have been taught. The gap is also between the haves and have nots. It is the job of schools to eliminate social disadvantage, therefore their job now (and it serves them right for not dealing with this well in the first place) is to reverse this gap doing all the teaching they would have done on top of the normal school business. This is particularly urgent for children with exams coming up because exam results are the fixed point against which we judge whether our education system is doing well. If exam results are damaged, this must mean we have failed.

Those advocating this (and some version of this) definition of the problem have particular positions on what schools are for. Our characters are: the politician who sees schools as an instrument for reducing social inequality and keeping voting parents on-side; the ex-Ofsted Chief Inspector and macho headteacher who once stated that if your teachers are happy, you must be doing something wrong; the Labour Peer who measures the success of state schools by how well they mimic the ‘best’ private schools and calls anyone with an alternative view an ‘apologist for failure’.

Their ideas play well in certain sections of the media because for decades we have been told that exam results are a reliable indicator of school effectiveness, that schools can eliminate disadvantage, and that teachers are a feckless bunch who moan all the time despite having more holidays than anyone else. This is a narrative we have chosen to create and believe. Perhaps these beliefs are true; who knows? What we do know is that the narrative isn’t like this in all countries, so the story we tell ourselves about schools is a product of our culture. We can make choices about how we talk about schools, teachers and children. We can talk them up; we can talk them down. We can ask for their help in sorting out societies problems, or we can blame them for not sorting them out sooner. We can give schools our support, or we can give them labels.

I take issue with the solutions being suggested. But then I would do, wouldn’t I? I am one of those letting the country down. Why would I voluntarily give up my weekends and holidays to help students make up for all those missed lessons? Talk about shooting myself in the foot. I know that all you are asking of me is to work as hard as everyone else in society who isn’t sitting pretty on a six week summer holiday, but being a selfish work-avoider, I’m going to try to come up with some rationale for this being a bad idea. So here goes…

As a headteacher of a state secondary school, I have my own definition of the problem. I am not asking you to believe it is ‘better’ than anyone else’s (although obviously I am biased towards believing it is), but I would ask that you hear me out.

Children have missed months of school. This has resulted in significant loss: children have been deprived of the normal social experiences that help them develop and be happy, of the daily care and concern shown to them by countless professionals in schools and other services, of the richness of experience that schools provide, of the rites of passage that mark their progression towards adulthood, and of the knowledge they would have acquired which enables them to see the world more richly. In the absence of school, some will have experienced greater adversity: witnesses to aggression, victims of loss, subjects to anxiety, or further pulled towards deprivation. However, others may have experienced relief from many of their daily social anxieties, experiences of bullying, or pressure of study. We don’t yet know what each child’s reality has been, and how it may come to affect them in the future. We also don’t know what the loss of learning has been and how well children may bounce back from this. Simplistic assumptions about which children will have fallen furthest behind based on their family income, or some other crass proxy, are no replacement for a teacher’s expert assessment. The immediate risk to students facing imminent exams is high on our agenda, but we know that these exams are an arbitrary measure of the entirety of a child’s educational progress in formal education. We have set the syllabus, content, duration and assessment method for the courses studied, and it is within our power to amend these so that they are a fair and reasonable assessment of the schooling students have received: the tail should not wag the dog. The big problem we face is recovery, and then to create an education system (and a society) which is more resilient to whatever uncertainty brings.

My instinct is that solutions which look simple and certain will likely not work. This is because the problem is complex, the terrain unfamiliar and the future unpredictable. In such an environment, we cannot work to a fixed plan. Instead, we need a working definition of the problem (its scale, scope and dimensions), clear values upon which to make decisions, a sense of direction and a willingness to adapt when we learn more.

I’m going to take a stab at this. What follows isn’t a plan… or steps… or a blueprint… or anything else that implies I have the answer. It is my gut feeling for how a way forward might look. I think it has more substance than the soundbites and vignettes I have gleaned of government thinking.

Point 1: Back to school

Until we have got children – all children – back in school, I would suggest we do not divert school leaders’ attention elsewhere (like in running summer schools which will have marginal impact). There is a danger of over-complicating this. My experience of recent weeks is that the time taken to plan for a new blended model means that almost every other priority is crowded out, which is one of the reasons why I argue here against a phased return. The other reason is that a mid-range blended approach will, unless social distancing is relaxed considerably, divert resources away from remote learning too drastically, leaving the overall impact of school diminished.

At the risk of over-simplifying this, there are essentially two steps to normality. Firstly, bring every child back to school for a small amount of time each week. Having seen the delight and relief of Year 10 and 12 students coming back to my school over the last two days, I am more convinced than ever that just this simple touch-point will have a tremendous impact on children’s’ well-being and engagement with study. If safe, this should happen in September. Continuing to prioritise ‘exam classes’ over all other students would be wrong, and counter-productive in the long term, although giving these students a larger slice of the cake would be justifiable. Secondly, ‘flip’ to having all students back all of the time when it is safe to do so. Social distancing is impossible in schools if any more than a small proportion of children are on site. To achieve this for 70 students, we have needed around 20-25 teachers in school; about a third of all I employ. This won’t scale up very far. So, to extend schooling further we need to abandon social distancing, and once this is abandoned you might as well bring in everyone.

Now, I am no scientist, so I cannot say what the rate and level of infection would need to be to bring secondary age children back to school without social distancing. However, I am fairly practiced at risk assessment. We can mitigate risk using other, very effective, methods such as rigorous hand washing routines, the use of face masks, and highly effective track and trace systems. The logic is to re-open schools fully once the risk of any member of the community carrying the virus becomes very low (perhaps even negligible), but should this rare event happen the chance of passing it on is minimised through non-social distancing measures, and that there is the ability to act rapidly and surely to contain contagion where local outbreaks occur. I need someone else to tell me the thresholds and controls that would make this possible, then my job is to deliver it. In the meantime, give leaders the summer to plan for two scenarios: minimal but inclusive return, or full return.

What we absolutely must not do is leave schools floating in a sea of uncertainty over the summer. This part of the problem can be shrunk, rationalised and prepared for.

Point 2: Assess the need

Once children are back in school, we can begin to get a sense of what loss has occurred. I am, of course, talking about loss of learning, but also about the wider impact of lost schooling. Schools are pretty good at this, but will need support from experts in mental health, social work and other children’s services to fully understand the comorbidity of interconnecting issues. This is about problem definition. We have an instinct for how this period may have impacted children and their families, but the full extent, and where this has hit hardest, is not yet known to us. The hidden lives of children must be uncovered following a period when what goes on inside the family home has been less transparent than at any time in recent history. Schools have served to lift the lid on the ‘black box’ of the family home over the last two hundred years, and this visibility has prevented countless misdeeds and injustices. Let us hope the regression in society is not as great as many of us fear.

It will be tempting to test students; to establish those infamous gaps. However, given the lost time, taking up weeks with formal assessments would be unwise. Indeed, we may consider a period whereby we sacrifice weighing the pig for the sake of fattening the pig, as the saying goes. This is a trade off. How much can we bear to sacrifice our insight into what grade the students is heading towards for the sake of helping them get a better grade? I would argue against any kind of centre assessed grades for Year 11 and 13 students next summer if at all possible because this will propel schools towards introducing even more formal assessments periods than usual, when the educational welfare of the students will be served better by doing fewer of these. Some may say that we need these assessments to establish the ‘gaps’, but recent history teaches us that, unless designed incredibly well and implemented intelligently, formal tests tend to provide data on grade gaps, not knowledge gaps. Informal, low-stakes assessments in class will likely provide more nuanced data on how uncertain students are in their understanding than another round of mock exams. Leave it to the teacher to work out where attention is most needed.

Point 3: Invest in mental health services

I could take a cheap shot at the depletion of mental health services for children here… oh, I can’t resist! The more constructive point though is to call for serious investment in these vital services. During the recovery, lets go out once a week and clap for the mental health professionals who will heal the sick with as much dedication and care as those medical professionals in our hospitals have done.

Point 4: Consolidate and prioritise

This point is about curriculum. There are traps ahead. It will be tempting for schools to narrow the curriculum around what is to be measured more than ever. In primary schools, this might mean more maths and literacy in the run up to SATS, whilst in secondary it may look like a narrower breadth of subjects. I have already heard of one school near to where I live who have written to Year 9 parents to tell them that they have cut one option subject (arbitrarily choosing which option block to slice) to allow students to catch up on other subjects. ‘Catch up’ thinking is corrosive. Inevitably, it sacrifices richness on the alter of results: out go the arts, the design and technology subjects, the physical exercise, the school trips, the extra-curricular pursuits and time to perform and compete. These are the things that children need to aid their recovery; to recapture normality. One devastated girl in the above school has been told she cannot take Dance GCSE – a girl who lives to dance – for whom it is an ambition, a release, and a vaccination against an otherwise dreary school day. Will this help her get a better grade in maths? And if it does, at what cost?

If we are honest, some of what we include in our curriculum could be missed without great loss, or could be taught in a more focused way. We have to consolidate our curriculum in some way, so we should ask each subject to take a fresh look at their curricular and prioritise the content which they absolutely cannot cut: the parts that are essential building blocks for later learning. In some subjects this will be hard. The learning of foreign languages builds gradually over time; you can’t just cut out groups of vocabulary or grammar rules. However, curriculum design has always mean choosing to impart of tiny proportion of the domain of knowledge anyway. Leaving a little more on the cutting room floor won’t make a significant difference in the long run. By the end of compulsory education, one term is only 3% of the total school experience. We should not be too precious about trimming the curriculum.

We should also remember that the curriculum isn’t just the topics we teach. Children’s schooling is their experienced curriculum: it is what we teach them intentionally, what they learn through the process of schooling, and the way this experiences shapes them as a person. If a catch-up mentality overtakes us, we may squeeze in more content, but in doing so force out something which may be of far more value to the child. Might not that trip to the medieval castle have taught students more about how we once lived than that after school revision class on medieval history? Might not that time spent rehearsing for the school play have imparted a greater love for live theatre than the lunchtime study of An Inspector Calls? Might not that summer camping expedition with the family have created more awe and respect for nature and landscape than the geography summer school? Our children need to catch up with life and catch up with their friends. Catching up with the curriculum has no moral superiority to this.

Point 5: Capitalise on gains

The nation’s youth have never before been expected to do so much school work by themselves. Yes, many have fallen short of this challenge, but why would we expect anything else? If children were capable of learning the curriculum without being at school, why would we need school? But what many have achieved is incredible. In my school, the vast majority of students have studied for three to six hours a day, often with minimal intervention from their parents. Speaking to some in school over the last couple of days, they all tell a similar story. They started well, carried along by the momentum of normal schooling, dipped to a point where their motivation to work had almost gone, then gradually (through worry about falling behind, encouragement from teachers, nudging by parents) picked it back up, encouraged and/or panicked by the imminent return to school and the thought of confronting their shortcomings. They all, without exception, profess some kind of feelings of guilt, inadequacy or despondency about what they haven’t done. They are all aware of how little has stuck in their memory; a palpable sense of how much less effective learning is when they aren’t at school. They haven’t all missed school, and some would have been quite happy for it not to return, but there was universal recognition that school is a far better way to become educated than the alternative. As my daughter observed, ‘I don’t want to go back to school, but if I have to have an education then that is better than trying to do it at home.’ Others – many – were just delighted to be back. It felt right. It felt like normality might be on its way back.

How can we capitalise on our renewed appreciation of school and build on the independent learning skills that students have acquired? As teachers, we have also learnt a great deal. We have new skills in screencasting, zooming and instructing at a distance which we can redeploy to improve the quality of homework and resource banks. The time students spend out of class should, and must, be greatly enhanced by this experience. It is not about more work, but using the time we have better so that study becomes a fluid skill; more complementary to the time spent in class. If we fill up Sixth Form timetables with more lessons, we will destroy the opportunity to create something better than what we had. Perhaps we can leave students with habits and abilities that will more than make up for a short-term impact on their exam results?

Point 6: Rationalise exams

Examinations, love them or hate them, are a mechanism to rank students and to evidence their mastery of the curriculum studied. They are imperfect, intrusive and here to stay. As I point out above, what we choose to examine is within our control. We choose to make GCSEs and A Levels a two year programme of study. We like to think that the content of these courses is essential and will equip students for the next stage of their education and for life. The truth is that much of what is learnt is forgotten, or never built upon other than for those students who specialise further in a particular discipline. Examinations mark a point in time, although we like to think of them as a definite end point. For those students continuing to study a subject beyond their current course of study, there will be plenty of time to cover lost ground. Universities are used to catering for catching up and recovering A Level content in the first year of a degree as students come to them with diverse levels of understanding and curriculum gaps. Sixth Forms and colleges have two years to secure any critical knowledge gaps which may hold back the depth of understanding needed at A Level. A knee-jerk reaction to cram facts into students’ heads in the last 8 months of their course would be counter-productive and excessive. It is far simpler and more sensible to adjust examinations to ensure that what students have studied is fairly and reasonably assessed. If this means we allow schools to skip some content, or provide some optional papers so students can choose to be examined in the areas where they are best prepared, then this is a pragmatic solution to the problem, and far preferable to the alternatives which would sacrifice the recovery for other age groups because we want to ensure ‘parity’ between one year’s exam results and the last.

Point 7: A National Virtual Education Service

Having found our trajectory for the urgent educational priorities, we can then turn to the wider issues which will vaccinate the school system against future catastrophe. I would like to add my voice to the call for a National Virtual Education Service. This service is a win-win in my view. Lest we have a second wave of the pandemic, we must act now to build on the work of those such as Oak National to ensure that high quality remote learning materials are available for every child in the UK (and why not the world?). And if we avoid another spike, such a service would help build a nation of independent learners, able to break free of their school and personal circumstance to engage with the best that has been thought and said. Now seems a good time to divorce in our minds the idea of school and school buildings. Our country needs a collective educational endeavour, not a disjointed, inconsistent, patchwork of academies and interest groups. Where you live need not determine what access you have to high quality instruction, feedback and support. This is an achievable, if ambitious, goal, but we have form for this kind of transformative effort: look to the Open University, the BBC World Service, The British Council. It is within our power to reinvent the UK as world leaders in education.

Point 8: Feed and meet need

Schools have an important role to play in tackling social injustice, but it is time we stopped placing all of this on the shoulders of schools. Inequality reduces the impact of schools: it is a distraction, a problem not within their control to solve, and something which others (such as national government) are better placed to address. I completely understand the call to continue to issue meal vouchers throughout the summer holidays; it makes no sense to feed students only when they are in school. However, why are schools tasked with delivering this? If so many families were not below the poverty line we wouldn’t need to dish them up with free meals each day – they would be able to afford to buy them! Free school meals are evidence that society allows children to grow up in households that cannot afford to feed them.

A solution must also be found to the digital divide. Why are schools the ones working out which households lack broadband access and fit for purpose computers, then going begging to find equipment to meet these needs? We must define a minimum expectation for IT access, and where this cannot be managed within the home environment children must be provided with access in other ways. Schools may have a role to play in this by providing after school access to facilities and support, but a more coordinated approach is needed so that there are places in local communities where students can go to study. I think they used to be called libraries?

Point 9: Promote anti-fragility

The concept of anti-fragility (Taleb, 2010) should be central to our re-shaping of schooling. Fragile things break easily when put under strain. However, the opposite of this is not robustness or rigidity: such things may be tough, but they are also inflexible – under enough pressure they will shatter too. The opposite of fragile is therefore anti-fragile. Anti-fragile systems are able to absorb shocks, adapt to changing circumstances and mold themselves around obstacles.

What would an anti-fragile school system look like? In recent months, an anti-fragile school system would have moved rapidly between a face-to-face model of schooling and a remote learning model, with minimal loss of efficacy. Such a system would ideally have already had equity of access (in this case to the internet and IT equipment) built in, teachers with the required skills to switch mode, and students who are skilled and able to study independently. The problem is that this preparedness is appropriate for this scenario, but these features may not be valid or useful in other scenarios where the system is required to adapt – who knows what else is coming down the line? We can be prepared for this situation happening again (and this would be sensible), but how do we prepare for every other scenario?

The answer is that we can’t, but we can be ready to respond quickly. Anti-fragility means the system can adapt to unexpected scenarios at short notice. This requires the ability to rapidly deploy resources, respond to changing priorities and adjust expectations. An anti-fragile school system might have the following features:

  • The ability for schools to draw down significant resources quickly to meet urgent needs (this may take the form of financial reserves – which have become very depleted in our system – or the willingness of government to trust school leaders when they ask for emergency financial assistance).
  • The ability for schools to draw on significant reserves of good will and expertise among their staff, which have been built up through training, trust and good working conditions over many years.
  • The ability of schools to respond to environmental cues, process complex information and make best-bet decisions in conditions of uncertainty under great pressure, which relies on expert leaders who are empowered and trusted to act in the best interests of their communities.
  • A strong sense of purpose and values, which are not warped or corrupted by system dynamics, and which provide a handrail when the normality of school life is disrupted.

If you look around and see lots of breakage, the question should not be ‘who is to blame?’, but ‘how can we make schools less fragile?’

Point 10: Learn the lessons

I don’t know what we can learn from this catastrophic set of events. There is a tendency to allow painful experiences to feed our pre-existing prejudices about what is ‘wrong’ with our school system, and fuel the arguments we were already making about what needs to change. I can see this bias coming through as I read back over what I have written here. We are all prone to it. We will all have a perspective (which means an opinion!) which helps us make sense of what just happened. It makes us feel better  to think we understand events, and better still if we can see a way forward. It is important that we listen to each others’ version of the past, and possible futures, and try to reconcile these with our own. We’ll only find a way forward if we find agreement. Right now, it feels like there is just division, but that will pass. Recovery takes time.


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