Lockdown: A chance to rethink state education

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“We are child-care, we provide food, care for mental health, nurture and safety…” says Martha Adebayo, a psychology teacher at a state secondary school in London. The lockdown reveals the multi-faceted and complex role schools play in the lives of families across the UK. “This means [under lockdown] my day is spent not just on teaching, but also on calling home to check how families are doing”.

Peter Wellby, head of history at a London state secondary school, says many colleagues are making forty phone calls per week to monitor students’ wellbeing. “It reveals just how effective our pastoral work is when they’re in school, and just how much of a loss it is when they’re not”, he explains. “The concept of “your student” has gone out of the window”, explains Rebecca Morris, an English teacher in Leeds, who no longer supervises her usual classes, and instead teaches solely Year 12, many of whom she has never met in person.

Peter and Rebecca discuss the key part schools play in motivating students; “It’s a classic rule of classroom discipline, that there needs to be an immediate consequence” (Rebecca). While there may be many concerned parents, the ramifications of lockdown are not so tangible for pupils. Rebecca’s school has had to rewrite their behavioural policy, but “how do you behavioural manage from behind a screen?” she asks.

We are child-care, we provide food, care for mental health, nurture and safety

Schools offer the necessary structure for pupils to learn, the loss of which reminds us of its value. “Obviously, the kids who will be hit the hardest are those from poorer backgrounds” – Rebecca states the harsh reality. Peter elaborates on the “gap” between more socially and economically-disadvantaged pupils and pupils who are more advantaged in these areas: “Over the summer holidays, the gap always widens. When they’re in school, the research shows that it stays the same or narrows”. With pupils at home for over two months now, much longer than the average state school summer holiday, this “gap” is inevitably growing. Schools have taken measures to protect “vulnerable” students, but it is impossible to maintain the level of support provided pre-lockdown, and the figures speak loud and clear, with charity School Home Support reporting a seven-fold increase in child-protection referrals since lockdown began.

Lockdown sheds light on significant and uncomfortable inequalities, but it also represents some opportunity for change. “For once in education there is space to be innovative and that is exciting.” Rebecca is keen for schools to use this time to rethink certain practices and introduce new ways of approaching education in an increasingly technological world.

Lockdown sheds light on significant and uncomfortable inequalities

It is clear, however, that effective remote learning cannot be achieved by simply transferring the contents of the school curriculum to a series of online lessons, and the government giving schools less than a week to carry out this transition demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about what teachers do. Peter jokes about the newfound respect parents have developed for teachers under lockdown, but this display of appreciation poses fundamental questions about what is expected of teachers… to what extent have they been tasked with parenting as well as teaching?

Getting children back in the classroom is, in the words of France’s Education Minister, a “social emergency”. However, the push to reopen schools in the UK as early as 1st June is, according to Rebecca, “ill-thought-through policy” which does little to build trust between the government and teachers. Apart from being potentially dangerous for staff and pupils, it fails to engage with deeper problems exposed by this crisis. School closure has demonstrated society’s heavy and often unrealistic reliance on teachers, and while clapping for key workers on a Thursday is an important display of thanks, it does not ensure the funding or reform schools need moving forward. For us to find a state of “normal” post pandemic, we must reconsider our existing normal.

Photography: Elinerijpers via Flickr

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