Yes, Gavin Williamson, we do need schools to reopen in July.

Lisa MillardBeacon Education Services, Beacon Family Services, News

In light of recent news from the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, I have been reflecting on why I feel it absolutely necessary to get children back in to school and what still needs to be done.

As a family we are lucky. Having a large household meant lots of different people to interact with. We have a large garden and live within walking distance of parks too, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get outside and run around too.

As a teacher, I have a good understanding of the curriculum in primary and in secondary. I have taught for nearly 20 years and been a mother for roughly the same time, however, the experience of lockdown has made it even more clear to me that education is only a tiny part of what makes schools so important.

Schools provide structure and routine

Over the course of the pandemic, we have tried hard to stick to our ‘normal’ routines – get up, eat breakfast, get dressed and be ready to start the day for 9am which, in the early days, started with Joe Wicks. While the structure was helpful, we found that same thing day in and day out didn’t work for us.

We replaced Joe with Cosmic Yoga, then Moana Yoga, Minecraft Yoga, Star Wars Yoga, Frozen Yoga (I would’ve preferred frozen yogurt) and even Harry Potter Yoga until we were yoga’ed out.

While we changed the activity, we have continued to reserve the first part of the morning for movement. We filled up the rest of the day with homeschooling / working, snack break, homeschooling / work, lunch, forest school – our favourite part of the day, screen time / work, dinner than bed. The children have found huge comfort in replicating the school routines they are familiar with. They have also meant that I can create new routines that fit around their schedules.

School relationships are important

We have tried very hard to provide opportunities for our children to engage with their friends during the lockdown. We have scheduled video calls with their friends and done our best to fulfil the role of their PR assistant. Yet, despite our efforts, the daily face-to-face video calls dwindled out (or didn’t even happen in the first place for some of my children) and became long text chats instead (or no contact at all). Even the older one misses playing, something which video calls and texts don’t allow. They all miss the connection and freedom they feel when engaged playing with their peers.

They also miss the connection with their teachers. I’ve heard of schools where teachers have been engaging regularly with their students. In conversations I’ve had with these parents, the efforts of their teachers to stay in touch have made their children feel valued and cared for.

Our experience has been different. Only one of my 13 year olds teachers is engaging with her by marking her work and sending replies to her messages. She lives for this. In other subjects she is left to her own devices with no feedback or replies to her messages. It is much the same for my 8 year old twins. They have had contact from senior members of staff (they are considered vulnerable as they are adopted), but no feedback on the work they have struggled to complete.

They all feel devalued and uncared for by the lack of engagement from their teachers. These are adults who they have formed relationships with and now they are being ignored or dismissed.

While I understand teachers are often parents too and therefore dealing with the same additional pressures, I find it difficult to believe that the relationship between teachers and their pupils is purely transactional. Again, it is the connection with these trusted and esteemed adults that my children are missing.

My children and I have missed school, even my 8 yr olds with educational challenges have missed aspects of school life despite thriving in lockdown. Schools are certainly more than a babysitting service which provides care for working parents – though I’ve also realised how valuable that is while trying to work from home AND homeschool. There are, however, things schools could do better.

Make sure the work has a purpose

I can’t tell my children why they have to do the work they are set. At least, I can’t do it convincingly because I honestly don’t know. I know it’s what’s on the curriculum, but as for the reasons they need to learn it? I’m clueless and I’m a teacher, I should know.

Much of the work set during school closures has felt pointless. For them it feels pointless as they are receiving no marks, no comments about how to improve it or even acknowledgement or praise for having done it at all. Why bother doing something that no one even cares about or acknowledges?

Typically, in education, teachers are taught to ignore the bad behaviour (where and when safe and appropriate) and provide opportunities to praise good behaviour. Ignoring or dismissing is employed as a technique to show a child that they will not get any attention for the wrong thing. Imagine now how children who are doing the right thing and be ignored are feeling.

Support parents better

Even as a trained teacher, I couldn’t follow half of what my children’s teachers were trying to get them to do. The instructions sent home from their teachers showed either a lack of care, a lack of time or an inability to make the lesson plans accessible for the average parent or all three. The relationship between schools and parents is essential for success.

As parents we hand over our children to the school and they hand them back over to us. Through homeschool diaries we share information about their wellbeing, welfare, achievements and any issues arising. Parents are signposted to resources and / or agencies for further emotional, psychological, behavioural support as necessary, but what happens if parents need help supporting their child/ren’s education.

A simple solution would be to add some information about what children are learning and links to resources where parents could learn what their children are learning. For example, I would really appreciate someone explaining aspects of Literacy or Maths to me so I could help my children with their work. Saying that, some tips for how to teach would be good for the millions of parents who aren’t actually teachers. Despite what some people think, there is an art to it and some strategies that make it a lot easier AND a lot more impactful.

Not only would this support parents, but it could be a great self-help resource for children when then get stuck. If lockdown has taught me anything about my children, it’s that they could do with some help to become independent learners. 

Be quicker to innovate

There are so many solutions to the real and perceived problems schools are facing and not all of them are digital. At the heart of it, schools are fundamentally no different now than they were over 100 years ago. Schools are meant to be preparing our children for the 21st century – an increasingly digitalised and automated world, but they are using 19th and 20th century tools and techniques. That feels like bringing a stone to a gun fight. 

However, it is not all about tools. Yes, adopting new and emerging technology could improve outcomes, but so too does innovative thinking and introducing new, improved ways of learning. Schools are stuck in a rut, not entirely of their own making. Many people working as teachers have never known anything different. As children, they sat behind desks themselves, they went to university, became a teacher and sat in front of desks. Is the system the way it is because it is best for children or is it simply because it’s the way it’s always been done.

As Covid-19 has proven, change and innovation is necessary. Modelling this adaptability and responsiveness, even in the face of economic challenge, is important, particularly considering the vast changes and economic challenges our children will face in their lifetime.

Don’t get me wrong, I do get it and it really isn’t that easy. I have been a teacher and a senior leader. There is A LOT to think about. The job is pretty much unachievable as it is with Ofsted looming, curriculum overhauls, reduced funding, teaching your classes, marking and taking care of your own family. Innovation often doesn’t get a second, or even a first, looking.

“Along with the benefits of school, lockdown has also exposed the huge gap between the educational provision between the rich and the poor and also the gap between the able students and those with additional educational needs.”

Looking towards the future, outside of lockdown, it’s the government I’m really annoyed with. Schools have been doing what they can, with varying success and engagement, given the skills, resources and funding they have available. However, the playing field is not level.

The more affluent schools in UK, namely independent schools, have had the money, skills and resources to innovate quickly and adopt digital solutions. They have maintained connections between staff and pupils through online learning, enrichment opportunities and extra-curricular activities.

Many independent students have received daily face-to-face teaching along with a full school day’s worth of online lessons, regularly feedback, online assessments to ensure progress and even digitally delivered sport and music lessons. That’s great for the children of those families who can afford it, like the children of our Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, both of his children are privately educated. His children have been emotional supported, provided with structure and a sense of security. They have been granted access to their friends through online learning sessions and engaged in sport and other activities with their peers. They have been valued by their teachers, had work marked and been given feedback about how to improve. My children have had none of that despite paying for education through my taxes.

Along with the benefits of school, lockdown has also exposed the huge gap between the educational provision between the rich and the poor and also the gap between the able students and those with additional educational needs.

So, thank you, Gavin, for reopening schools before summer. However, what I really want to know is how can my children have what they’re entitled to? How can my children have what your children have?

Jules Ashley-Higgins is a former school leader, educator and Director of Beacon Education Services, a part of Beacon Family Services. Beacon Family Services works with families, schools and communities to provide therapy sessions which help build relationships and connections with others. They have continued to offer their services throughout Covid-19, providing valuable connections and acting as a lifeline to struggling families. 

You can find out more about how Beacon Family Services help families, vulnerable or at-risk pupils, or learn more about developing your practice as a therapist through training at beaconservices.com.