Sam Strickland reminds us not to get caught up with the catch up narrative when schools open fully in March. Trust the teachers. Keep it simple.

Friday 20th March 2020 could be viewed as education’s ‘Day of Infamy.’ Since schools were officially cited as ‘closed’, education has been forced to adapt in a way no one could have foreseen, bringing about an emphatic array of changes. It is too early to say if education has changed for the better or whether we are going to see a difference in our approach and philosophy in the long term. What is absolutely certain is that the teaching profession has demonstrated enormous professional agility and managed to change its modus operandi on the turn of a sixpence.

In the last year, schools have had to both juggle and spin multiple plates. From the outset, schools were described as ‘closed,’ but they were anything but closed. Key worker and vulnerable pupil provision has become a daily norm, with the numbers from school ‘closure’ one, to ‘closure’ two dramatically increasing as the criteria became far more woolly and loose. Teachers have had to consider how to teach pupils remotely. The debates over live versus pre-recorded lessons, plus what we even mean by ‘remote learning’ has not only ensued but has become a game of political brinkmanship. Schools had to devise Centre Assessed Grades in anticipation of last summer’s examination result days. At first it looked like these grades were something of a waste of time, with preference for an algorithm. But that ultimately led to a U-Turn, which was not only inevitable and obvious but also damaging.

Schools then had to widen their already open doors in the summer term, welcoming back their pupils, with a view that it would be business as usual come September. The reality, once the new academic year began, was that it was anything but business as usual. Schools implemented and embedded highly-refined Covid-19 secure safety measures and managed to navigate their way for the first few weeks of the academic year. However, the invisible foe was always waiting in the wings.

Every Head, if they are fully honest, knew that disruption within their schools was unavoidable: that bubbles would burst and that classes, year groups and staff would need to be sent home. There was also an air of inevitability from the outset that exams in the summer of 2021 were unlikely to happen either and I find it baffling that a credible and tangible Plan B was not considered and ready to go in the highly likely event of all schools nationally having to ‘close’ once more.

What we now face as a sector is uncertainty. Anyone who knows anything about education, about schools, about staff, about children and about parents is that uncertainty does not go down well. If you run a school with uncertainty surrounding your values, expectations and rules then you normally get chaos. What we need, swiftly, is precision, clarity and certainty. At the time of writing this article there is still no real sense regarding how pupils in Years 6, 11 and 13 will be assessed and awarded grades this summer. No one truly knows what will happen with Year 5 and their SATs in 2022. Year 10 have now missed more than a significant chunk of their GCSE content, often with multiple disruptions due to periods of self-isolation as well as closure. Year 12 pupils have never sat a formal set of exams and missed a huge chunk of their Post-16 experience. In what will feel like the blink of an eye, our eldest pupils in the schooling system will sit a public examination series for the first time ever. The stakes for those pupils could not be higher.

The narrative has now shifted to one of catch-up, intervention, extended school days, extending the school year and extra-tutoring for pupils. Whether this is motivated by political football or a strong sense of moral purpose is broadly speaking irrelevant to the people on the ground and to the pupils who will experience an inevitable tidal wave of extra intervention to ‘catch up.’

What is relevant, however, is that we must carefully consider why we are doing something and what we want to achieve by doing so. The words impact, progress and intervention are all too readily used in education and often carry little meaning or yield dangerous mutations. Most notably, when I think about intervention my mind is filled with images of red, amber and green coloured trackers and measuring how much progress different cohorts of pupils are making from one period of time to the next. There is a real danger that we are going to forget what both the research and our own professional experiences have shown us. We need to be careful that we are not about to engage in applying a band aid to something that perhaps needs far greater caution. There is a real danger that the profession is going to end up working even harder still, to little or no avail and in many regards, fall down the catch-up rabbit hole.

There are a number of things we need to accept in anticipation of our pupils returning to school, namely that remote learning is nothing more than a stop gap. Yes, some learning may have taken place but in reality it is not going to have had the same impact as in-class teaching. We also need to be accepting of the fact that pupils will return with gaps in their knowledge and that ultimately we will need to consider carefully how we deal with these moving forwards.

I will refer you back to a previous point I made, children need and crave certainty. Children are also extremely adept at sniffing out panic and at detecting where actions we are taking have little value. We all know children have missed out on their learning; we all know that the way in which remote learning has been received will vary hugely all the way down to the micro level, from pupil to pupil. We all know that pupils are unlikely to have been as physically active as they are when in school and we all know that the mental health of our pupils will be affected by the pandemic.

The more we shout out and say to our children that they are behind, that they are going to be a lost generation, that their earning potential is diminished etc then the more likely this current generation of children are to believe those highly negative narratives. Anybody working daily with children knows that what children of all ages need are teachers who are uber parents. They need teachers who have their corner, breed certainty, know what they are doing, praise them and, in a professional sense, love them like a parent would.

What pupils do not need when schools open their doors more widely is to be greeted by a wave of panic. They do not need to see teachers who are frankly burnt out talking about intervention and catch-up. They do not need a tidal wave of high-stakes assessments to ascertain the gaps in their knowledge.

Adept teachers can deduce where gaps in knowledge are by simply teaching. What the profession needs to do is ensure that the core job remains the core job. In other words, teachers need to simply do that: teach.

Schools need to offer total certainty to their pupils. The most powerful tool at our disposal, which at face value is the least seductive as it will seem like we are doing nothing, is to give children the order, routine and certainty of the normal school day. They do not need the day extending. The first hurdle for everyone to jump will be returning to the normal order, to the normal daily routine and hustle and bustle of school life. The second hurdle is to rebuild the stamina that is needed to see a normal school day, which is exhausting for all at the best of times, through from start to finish. Then the challenge is to allow teachers to teach and pupils to learn.

The shiny seductive bugle call of catch-up and intervention is a red herring. Trust the teachers; let them work their magic. Above all, perhaps we just need to slow everything down and get back to basics.


Sam is the Principal of a large all-through school, the organiser of ResearchED Northampton, a successful author and is a leading voice in the current conversation in education. His most recent book is Education Exposed 2: In Pursuit of the Halcyon Dream

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