Education recovery: Let’s stop the eye-catching policy wheezes

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
The omens are good: Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Education recovery must not be put at risk by rushed, unproven solutions before we have understood the problem we are trying to solve, says Geoff Barton

If we had to sum up what we have learned from the past year in a single word, what might that word be? It is difficult to boil down so many experiences, particularly when we are still living through them. But one word that comes to mind is “humility”.

The natural world has taught us a lesson about the frailty of the systems on which we rely and in which we put such store. Economies, health and education services, travel, hospitality – all have been put under terrible pressure.

In education, we have learned that bringing millions of children and adults into schools and colleges every day and delivering a full curriculum is no mean feat. It is a hugely complex exercise that can be more easily derailed than we might have imagined.

The furniture of the education system – exams, tests, performance tables, and inspections – feel a lot less permanent than they did 12 months ago.

Ministers have discovered that just because they say something will happen, doesn’t necessarily make it so. In the middle of a pandemic, exams don’t go ahead just because the powers-that-be want them to go ahead, and schools don’t stay open to all their pupils just because the government keeps repeating the mantra that education is a national priority.

But, in truth, it is not just ministers who have got things wrong. Few of us can honestly say that there are not things we would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight.

There was widespread support for last year’s approach to awarding grades following the decision to cancel exams. If we knew then what we know now we would have run screaming for the hills at the mere mention of the idea of using an algorithm.

The lessons we have learned from the past year are important as we look forward to the future, and how we repair the damage done to children’s education by the pandemic.

There are no shortage of views on what should happen. We’ve heard a lot about extending school days, a longer summer term, and repeating a year.

Scarcely a day goes by either without another report about the impact on mental health, the education attainment gap, and the long-term consequences of the disruption that has taken place.

The experience of the past year, however, has cautioned us about the perils of rushing to solutions and making generalisations before we have understood the problem we are trying to solve.

Boring though this may be for the nation’s headline writers, the answers are to be found in the painstaking work that goes on in schools and colleges to identify learning gaps and apply the appropriate support for each individual, rather than in eye-catching policy wheezes.

The truth is that children will have been affected differently. Those fortunate enough to have parents who were able to devote time to supporting them at home, who had a laptop of their own and a stable internet connection, who had a quiet space in which to work – they will have fared pretty well.

Others will not have done so, and particularly those children who need the most support in their learning.

Similarly with mental health and wellbeing. Many children will have coped well with the experience of lockdown, and as they are actually quite resilient, will quickly get back into the routines of school life.

Some children, however, will have been badly affected – particularly those whose families have been directly impacted by death or illness, and financial loss as a result of coronavirus.

There will be many different stories – as one would expect in a school population of many millions. There will also be many different solutions.

Hopefully, as children reintegrate into their schools, and teachers have a sustained, and less disrupted, opportunity to work with them, the normal stuff of teaching will work its magic for many pupils, and they will get back up to speed relatively painlessly. Some, however, will require significant extra support, and possibly for a long time to come.

Fortunately, there is a recognition in government that education recovery is going to need to be a detailed enterprise led by schools and colleges, and that there will have to be further financial support to match the need.

It would help if the government made it clear that the talk of restructuring the school year is a longer term discussion – not something for the immediate future – but let’s focus on the positive.

The appointment of Sir Kevan Collins as the education recovery commissioner is good news. His public pronouncements reflect what we know of him – he understands the education system well, is steeped in evidence, and recognises that schools will need to use a range of approaches.

So, the omens are good. Policy-makers and the education sector appear to be broadly on the same page. That does not mean we will always agree on every aspect.

But the government, on this at least, appears to have learned the lessons of the last year – that it doesn’t have all the answers, and that it needs to trust the profession.

If only the commentariat would demonstrate a similar sense of humility. We can but dream.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via


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