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Long road to recovery for schools

by
18 June 2021

Life for teachers is not getting easier any time soon, warns Dennis Richards

Alamy

Sir Kevan Collins, speaking in the Methodist Central Hall, London, nine years ago

Sir Kevan Collins, speaking in the Methodist Central Hall, London, nine years ago

WE HAVE prayed it many times; so many times, in fact, it has almost become a caricature. Nevertheless, it would be hard to think of a more appropriate plea for help — not least in education:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Serenity seems to be hard to come by. Not surprisingly, the short-term, medium-term, and longer-term issues are all crashing into one another.

First, we need to talk about Kevan, as it were. Sir Kevan Collins, the now former education recovery tsar, is universally popular with teachers. And it’s not just the money. He is firmly rooted in a northern heritage: he attended secondary school in Preston, obtained a PPE degree from Lancaster, and a PGCE at Bradford and Ilkley Community College, and has a teaching career that spans experience in Tower Hamlets and Bradford.

His price tag for a government-led education recovery plan came out at £15 billion. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, pared it down to £1.4 billion, which apparently works out at £22 per primary-school student. Sir Kevan promptly shocked the Department for Education by doing something to which they were wholly unaccustomed: he resigned.

His agenda, a two-year recovery plan, was also linked to what has been described as a golden opportunity to reset the UK education agenda.

Two days after his resignation, an Education Policy Institute report, with exquisite timing, showed that the gap in educational attainment had been further magnified by disadvantage and location as a result of Covid-19. Primary children lost 1.3 months of reading attainment in the autumn in London, 2.6 months in Yorkshire and Humber. Sir Kevan had his finger on the pulse.

 

THERE is, meanwhile, for the moment, a short-term “elephant in the room”. Secondary-school teachers’ minds are currently focused on what may happen on 10 August. They have spent weeks trying to come up with GCSE and A-level grades, hoping to avoid a “Mexican stand-off” with the exam boards and the Education Secretary on the lines of last year.

Teachers’ methodology this year has been based on the “get our retaliation in first” principle. No sooner had the students staggered back into the classroom, after the latest lockdown imbroglio, than yet another assessment exercise would be plonked down in front of them.

In a significant change from last year, we have been asked to switch from assessment, based on one “mock” exam and a final series of exams, towards a system of continuous assessment: what the TES described as “a form of modularity on steroids”.

istockThe introduction of T levels is boosting further education

We have wrestled with an acute dilemma: how generous can we be with our grades, without attracting unwanted attention? Apparently, the exam boards do not have the power to downgrade our school’s results, but they do have the power to withhold an award. But, frankly, if they dare to do that to us, we will hit them with so much assessed material that they can look forward to a summer holiday sometime in 2023.

It is a nerve-racking period, to say the least. Watch this space. If you are a student waiting for your results, you might wish to assume that all your holiday destinations during August are on the red list.

 

IS THERE anything we can say with confidence in the longer term? Well, yes. Thin gruel it might be, but there seems to be a widespread acceptance that the dreaded ritual of parents’ evening, endured by teachers and parents alike for generations past, will henceforth be online. Alleluia.

The dilemma used to be acute. Teachers wanted the parents’ evening to begin at 3.30 p.m. Parents preferred 6.30 p.m. End result: the 5.30 p.m. compromise suited nobody.

The sheer misery of ploughing through a list of appointments in a system that breaks down in the first five minutes will, it is hoped, become a thing of the past. Teachers had learned to use the same platitudes about not a lot. Some schools used to resort to desperate measures, ringing a bell every five minutes, to keep the whole thing moving. It did not work. Mr and Mrs Moanalot had been building up to this moment for weeks.

Now that we have tried it online, with a glass of red wine and a mute button to hand, it all goes swimmingly. No way back now.

 

MORE important changes look irreversible in the longer term. The horrors that some girls had endured throughout their school careers — as much a shock to me as anyone — were made explicit as never before.

Girls, from now on, will rightly no longer accept the kind of sexist abuse that has so disfigured our schools in recent years. If pressing the reset button is to mean anything at all, this has been a good start.

Similarly, in relation to Oxbridge entries, levelling up is at last gathering pace. Brampton Manor Academy, which serves the area of Newham, in east London, is a new power in the land. A staggering 77.6 per cent of the intake do not speak English as their first language; and yet their students have achieved 55 Oxbridge places for September.

Eton, which, little more than a decade ago, would have had in the region of 100 places, has this year been allocated 44. It is a seismic change. In 2020, Cambridge hit the 70-per-cent mark for entries from state schools.

 

TWO further broad outlines are clear. They will be the test. Values and vocation. The Yorkshire head teacher Richard Sheriff, this year’s national president of the Association of School and College Leaders, tells me that we have to “support the younger generation to find a future that reflects changed perspectives and newly prioritised values”.

It is an admirable credo. To have any meaning — and, indeed, practical outcome — the post-Covid curriculum will need a radical rethink. For years, there has been unease that sidelining music, sport, drama, dance, and art has been damaging. Unhealthy practices crept in, and schools’ terror of missing targets meant that young children did little else but English and maths in their final year at primary school.

istockIn-person parents’ evenings will be unpopular now teachers have wielded the mute button

Damaging socially and mentally, it is hard to think of anything more inappropriate post-Covid. The arts generally deserve a level playing field.

Church schools could also seize the moment to renew their focus on high-quality religious studies. Older students are more than ready to examine their experience of the past two years in an ethical and philosophical context.

 

THE reset agenda will also, yet again, involve an attempt to achieve a balance between academic and vocational courses, at 14,16, and 18. We have been here before, multiple times. Sadly, I am old enough to remember many of them: the much-derided CPVE (”completely pointless vocational education”), GNVQ (”generally not very qualified”), right through to the latest incarnation, the Tomlinson Diploma.

All foundered on the resistance of the great British public to the idea that working with your hands is on a par with working with your brain. The pandemic has helped the Government to “sort it”, once and for all.

The mechanism is already in place. Church Times readers may have missed the introduction of T (technical) levels, but they have been lurking in the undergrowth for the duration of the pandemic. Offered across 15 occupational areas, from agriculture to manufacturing and all stations in between, the roll-out began in September 2020.

There is suspicion in the trade that the revolution will be expensive, and that there will be a big shift from university education towards higher education (i.e. technical colleges) to pay for it. Bring back the polytechnics: all is forgiven. The Blairite vision that 50 per cent of 18-year-olds would go to university will be quietly dropped.

On one issue, all teachers are agreed. The Social Mobility Commission has again recommended that the school league tables, abandoned in 2020, should remain “parked” in 2021. Many would argue that, in terms of a reset, they should be “parked” for good.


Dennis Richards is a former head teacher of St Aidan’s C of E High School in Harrogate, and has been tutoring A-level and GCSE modern foreign languages in another local school.

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