26 August 2021

Covid will mean serious challenges this school year, but it has had some silver linings too

By Tim Clark

Looking back over the last 35 years or so, the one constant in English education has been change. Back in the mid 1980’s there were no GCSEs, league tables, Ofsted, National Curriculum or Grant Maintained schools (not to mention academies or free schools). Indeed, in the past few decades the Department for Education has changed its name five times, whilst the Ofsted Inspection Framework (i.e. for what inspectors are looking) has changed six times in the past nine years (twice in 2012). So much change – some very good, some not so good, some contradictory.

But then, on top of this catalogue of change comes the Covid pandemic, the single biggest imposition on peacetime society since the 14th century. Although I do not personally think that Covid will lead to major policy changes in education, it will lead to significant change, at least in the short term. 

There has some been discussion about raising the school starting age to enable current pupils to repeat the year, but this has, quite rightly, not been pursued. It is an interesting topic for discussion, but should only be considered after serious research and analysis, and if it is deemed to be educationally beneficial in the long term.

So, what does the new school year hold?

Firstly, the pandemic is clearly not over yet. Schools must remain ready to revert to remote learning and to cater for pupils and staff who are required to self-isolate. Despite the phenomenal success of the vaccination programme, further outbreaks and new variants remain a real possibility, not least in a bustling and crowded school/college setting.

Secondly, catch-up remains the immediate priority. Pupils have lost anything between six and 12 months of ‘normal’ schooling, so despite summer schools and individual tutoring etc, it is going to take time, possibly several years, to make up for lost time and to get to where we should be.

We await the announcement by the examination body, Ofqual, in the next few weeks as to what is going to be the state of play for public exams in 2022. Whatever their decisions, however, problems will remain. I hope that Ofqual will decide to reduce the volume of content to be examined next year, rather than forcing teachers to race through the full content specification.

Whatever they decide, however, there will be problems for at least one more year as we see students commencing A Level and other post-16 courses the following year either not having completed their full GCSE courses, or having tried to rush through the complete specifications without fully mastering the basics; either is particularly damaging for progressive and cumulative subjects such as maths, the sciences and languages. 

Recruitment and retention of teaching staff is another top priority. For several years, initial teacher training institutions have reported vacancies in most subjects, not just in those for which it has been traditionally difficult to recruit. Something like 50% of Teach First entrants – graduates who go straight into the classroom and learn on the job – have left the profession after only two years, and about 10% of schools have failed to fill vacancies.

The demands of Covid will have done nothing to attract new blood to teaching whilst, at the same time, the pandemic has driven many serving teachers to breaking point. Schools must, therefore, prioritise supporting their staff in fulfilling their jobs as well as possible. This includes reinforcing the highest standards of pupil behaviour, so crucial after pupils have got out of the usual routines and expectations of school, and reducing paperwork, administration and non-essentials to an absolute minimum. More than ever, the task for school leadership must be to allow teachers to teach and pupils to learn.

But let me finish on a positive note. Without doubt, Covid, despite the truly heart-rending pain and suffering it has caused, has resulted in some positive legacies for education.

Firstly, it has resulted in the ‘upskilling’ (to use a dreadful phrase) of the profession. The use of remote learning, both online and in other ways, has forced us to consider new methods of delivery as well as requiring youngsters to become more independent in their learning. This does not mean that remote learning is superior to traditional classroom methods – far from it – but it has forced all teachers to reconsider how they deliver the curriculum and how they assess pupil progress.

Most importantly, however, the pandemic and the closure of schools has reinforced the power and importance of schools, both as vehicles for academic development and in terms of social development and mental health. Parents, pupils and staff have longed for a return to education normality, knowing that schools and experienced, professional teachers provide the key to personal development, educational success and future prosperity.

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Tim Clark was a secondary school Head for 18 years. He now runs a consultancy specialising in school improvement.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.