Schools and Covid-19 — What the Dickens is going on?

04 Nov 2020 / Pete Atherton

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

This often-quoted opening line from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities will help us explore some of the emerging issues surrounding the noble task of trying to run a school during a pandemic. On one hand, Covid-19 is making school life challenging, confusing and frightening. On the other, it is clear that the crisis is forcing us to ask some important questions and to dream some important dreams.

Every day I speak to educators, I’m hearing about ways in which they are adapting to the situation. I hear about teachers’ innovation, their inspiration, their resilience.

Could It could be argued that elements of the recent school experience could help bring about permanent improvements in in how teachers do their jobs? Could technology help teachers create more logical, purposeful lessons and monitor and support the pupils with more clarity and efficiency?

In this week’s post, I’ll continue telling you about Simon Sloan’s thoughts in his capacity as the Senior Advisor in School Performance at the Diocese of Leeds.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness

How will this pandemic be remembered in terms of its management by central government? Maybe we could talk about that in the pub, when this all blows over. Until then, let us be safe in the knowledge that educators are innovators — especially now.

During my interview with Simon Sloan, we discussed the potential answers to the big questions that are being posed in education since lockdown in March 2020. We referred to the way the education system in New Zealand adapted after the Christchurch earthquake. Results improved because learning in classroom was clearer, directed, precise, targeted and formed around logical conceptual pillars. Planning became more intentional and there was clarity of focus.

The pandemic has caused us to question everything. One of these is the school curriculum itself. Though the school curriculum has long been the site of ideological struggle. Some, erm, people in power (insert your figures of derision here), see education as Mr Gradgrind, the school board Superintendent from Dickens’ Hard Times. Gradgrind is introduced like so:

With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.

On the other end of the ideological scales is the more child-centred notion that children achieve a sense of self in variety of ways, not just through a rigid and rigorous curriculum. There is a place for music, art, oracy, debate — these provide a richness and breadth to education. If we reduce the breadth of the curriculum this is less enriching and rewarding for pupils.

Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.

Talking of Mr Gradgrind, another big question that has arisen since lockdown is whether we actually need formal examinations at Key Stage 2, 4 and 5. How do exams reflect what children can do over the course of their education? Children did not sit tests in year 6 and exams in years 11 and 13 this year. Did this hamper their progress? How did the absence of high stakes, one hit exams actually help children’s personal and intellectual development? As we all know from the level of scrutiny under which schools are placed, we sometimes teach to the test outcomes and this is different from learning.

Edtech — more than just facts?

If lockdown forced schools to take much of their teaching online, how much will this bring about an improvement in pedagogy? To what extent will the teachers’ use of apps, quizzes, VLEs and MIS all work in harmony to improve the performance of the schools and the experience of those pupils?

If there is more of a focus is on formative assessment, how can schools ensure that their data is easy to record and analyse? Furthermore, if pupils have to self-isolate on more than one occasion, how can the MIS be transparent and robust enough to help staff represent a child’s progress in a way that is sensitive but accurate?

It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair

That said, Simon Sloan reported some encouraging signs from Ofsted.

No — really.

If Ofsted were a character from Dickens, would they be Compeyson — the treacherous, gentlemanly antagonist whose actions cause lasting harm? What many schools have experienced during recent monitoring visits has been very different from the oppositional relationship and culture of fear and compliance that we are used to.

During interim visits, Ofsted Inspectors were listening to what schools had to say. They were interested in learning about their continuing challenges during Covid-19. Their attitude to pupil data was, perhaps a little less tyrannical and this was encouraging for the future. As statutory data showed gaps, schools would need to prove that the predicted grades submitted to the DfE were themselves based on meaningful data. We mentioned earlier that the pandemic has opened up some important questions about broader issues in education, like exams, for example. Whatever your opinions on the place of exams, I think we can be safe in the knowledge that people who work in education would like Ofsted to change how they interact with schools.

Simon hopes that the pandemic may have started to recalibrate the relationship between Ofsted and schools.

The hope, then, is that we can move forward from a position of mutual professional trust. For example, we can use our MIS data to support pupils and bring about more efficient ways of working. That is very different from data being deployed as a stick for Ofsted to beat us with.

To echo A Tale of Two Cities again, the choice is this: do we have everything before us or do have nothing before us? Forgive the binary choices here but these are challenging times and we have to believe that we will come out of this leaner and stronger.

Next week, I’ll tell you all about a fascinating conversation that I had with Adam Gough, who is Primary Deputy Head, Assessment lead and KS1 moderator.