The way forward post-lockdown: Some simple suggestions

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
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. EDUCATION. If children are to stay home again on a rota basis has anyone thought of the likely ...

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The government’s handling of education during the coronavirus crisis has lacked a coherent strategy. Geoff Barton puts forward a number of simple, logical solutions for the challenges facing schools in the coming months

The government wants a full return to schools and colleges in September. That much is clear. Everything else is uncertain.

How we do that while suppressing transmission of the coronavirus is what Donald Rumsfeld might have called a “known unknown”. So too is the shape of next year’s exams and assessment, and the detail of the grand £1 billion catch-up plan announced last week.

Over the weekend, in a radio interview, we were asked for our view of the government’s handling of education during this crisis. Our response: it has lacked a coherent strategy.

We were reminded of the scale of the challenge facing the government, and rightly so. No government is going to get everything right in such a situation, and it won’t all go smoothly.

But there are many things that the government can control. These include being precise and clear about what it is asking of schools and colleges; the rationale for its decisions; and a route map about the weeks and months ahead so that we all know where we are heading. How difficult can that be?

And then there is its tendency to over-complication. We should perhaps not be surprised about that in a sector which suffers from far too much complexity in normal times. But if ever there was a situation requiring simplicity this is surely that situation.

It is easy enough to criticise, though, but harder to come up with solutions. So, let’s test that out with some simple answers to the current conundrums of the sector. The ship has probably sailed already on some of these issues, but nevertheless:


Catch-up funding

The catch-up funding is an incredibly complex plan involving setting up a whole new £350 million National Tutoring Programme which schools can then buy sessions from at a subsidised rate.

Why not instead simply attach the extra funding to the Pupil Premium, a system which is already established, tried and tested? This would deliver targeted funding directly to schools, quickly and efficiently, allowing them the flexibility to provide support based on their knowledge of the needs of their pupils.

And why is there no funding for post-16 and early years when these are so obviously critical phases and these children and young people will also need support?

Full return in September

We have heard from the prime minister and education secretary that there will be a full return to schools in September, and a vague suggestion this will be based on doubling the size of “bubbles” of pupils from 15 to 30.

It is fair to say that the thinking is evolving. But it is pretty obvious that this idea does not fit in with the mixing that takes place through different subject options, in playgrounds, sports fields, corridors, lunch queues, and on transport. And how do the politicians know what the public health situation will be in September?

Why not instead plan for two or three different workable scenarios, communicating them to the sector, and deciding which to enact as the situation becomes clear. And why has not that already been done?

Accountability

How about saying now, so that everybody is clear, that there won’t be school performance tables next academic year? It would be pretty difficult to have a fair comparison between schools given the need to focus on helping children to catch-up from a variety of starting points, and the likelihood that there will be continued disruption from outbreaks of the virus.

It would also address the issue of key stage 2 tests, leaving schools with the freedom to use them for their own monitoring and support, if they choose to do so, but without that being turned into an unfair league table. And it would take some of the heat out of the question of next year’s GCSEs and A levels.

Examinations

On the latter point, we this week heard the education secretary, speaking in the House of Commons, appearing to suggest that next year’s exams could be delayed in order to provide some more learning time. That would of course truncate the window for marking the exams, which might not be practical, or it would necessitate delaying the publication of results, which might not be practical either.

Why not instead simply shorten the exam season and give the pupils fewer exam papers with more options over which questions to answer, or some parts of the assessment phased during the year?

Exams could then start later, allowing more learning time, without causing knock-on problems, and students would have more flexibility to focus on the questions on which they are most secure. The system of comparable outcomes would ensure grade distribution is consistent with other years.


A logical starting point

Everybody will have views on these suggestions, but they are at least a fairly simple and logical starting point. And, most importantly, schools and colleges need to know the answers to these issues as early as possible, so that they are able to plan accordingly.

Clarity, simplicity, urgency – this will give teachers and pupils the best opportunity to make up for lost time and lost learning. We might even get into the habit of doing things simply in the longer term, and declutter the education system of the byzantine bureaucracy and processes which too often seem to be a distraction from our core business: teaching children.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via https://bit.ly/2Z2ySVD


Comments
. EDUCATION. If children are to stay home again on a rota basis has anyone thought of the likely consequences—- disrupted learning , greater anxiety amongst our children , a platform for easy access to ‘ groom’ vulnerable children who are are already disillusioned , and the knock on effects on our economy.
I suggest we aim to keep all children on school sites , split classes , teaching half in the morning and the other half in the afternoon AND the time not in class in a supervised homework group, using marquees if necessary. If we need to lengthen the school day to facilitate access to science labs we need to compensate teachers and provide incentives to pupils. Retired teacher.

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