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Why are we talking about re-opening schools?

By 5th May 2020May 8th, 2020Blog

“Why are we talking about reopening schools?” might seem like an odd question, but it is an important one and one that doesn’t seem to be being asked often enough during the current crisis.

I never tire of using the comment that “purpose is not simply a target that an organisation aims to achieve, it is an organisation’s reason for being” and with good reason. We need absolute clarity of purpose, before we consider reopening schools.

If the purpose is to get back to normal that would dictate how we go about the reopening of schools. We need to reopen as normal, and “old normal” at that. If the purpose is to enable more people to return to work, that would have different implications for what we do. If the purpose is to reduce inequality and make sure that disadvantage does not increase as a result of school closures, that would have an impact on how we organised the reopening.

Getting back to “normal”?

The first purpose, returning to normal, is unlikely to be fulfilled as we are continually being assured that we will be returning to a “new normal”. We are continually being shown an adapted normal – the same classrooms that children left with the desks more widely spaced. In effect, the old normal adapted as little as possible. There is no effort to look at different approaches. The only question appears to be “how far can we restore what we were doing before this all started?” and the answer is likely to involve part time education and, therefore, disrupted child care and, most likely, a very limited impact on inequality.  It will involve huge issues about what we do in playgrounds, in corridors and in other shared spaces.  It will also involve us in seriously thinking through how we go about ensuring an effective return. There will be issues of adaptation for young people who have been isolated for weeks. There will be issues about starting points. How will we know what has been happening with children during lockdown?

This is a massive question in itself and brooks many others. As far as I am aware, there is very little being done to gather anything resembling evidence about the experience that young people are currently having. I have no sense at all of a structured, strategic approach to this, which sits at odds with the regular claims that government actions are informed by evidence.  Notable exceptions include some very good work by the Children’s Parliament to track the experience of children.

Anecdotes and Evidence

In short, there is a lot of anecdote, but very little collated evidence. Even the anecdotes are often contradictory and surprising. Much of what we hear focuses on the widening of the gap between rich and poor and highlights the negative impact of lockdown.  In contrast, a local branch of Home-Start has been reporting that families that they are working with are responding well to the lockdown. They have been engaging with their children through arts, crafts, stories and constructive play.  Their diet has improved as more food is being prepared at home.  I have never heard any other conversations about this in the media or social media, although it seems likely that the same patterns will be being repeated elsewhere, but not everywhere.

I intend to follow this article up with another looking at the whole question of what we are learning from the experience that we are undergoing, but for now I hope that it is enough to mark the fact that we need to know what we are building on in education and there is a massive risk that we won’t unless we get curious about the range of responses to lockdown and organised in the way that we satisfy that curiosity.

All of this suggests that we are not going to be able to move quickly to achieving our first purpose.

Supporting other people to return to work?

If the purpose is, primarily, the second one, effectively to provide childcare, with the bonus possibility of a bit of education thrown in, so that more people can get back to work, then we can think differently about what we do with our schools. We don’t need schools filled with teachers. We can deploy youth workers, always assuming that we can find some. We can work with Third Sector organisations. We might be able to deploy childminders who may not be able to continue with their established arrangements. All of this might help to create a model that might be sustainable through the summer without placing undue, and unsustainable demands on teachers. I am not suggesting for a moment that I am offering a panacea, but some divergence in thinking might unlock some of the horrible dichotomies that we have allowed ourselves to become trapped in.

Addressing disadvantage?

If the purpose is genuinely to address disadvantage and to ensure that we don’t have increasing differences in outcomes for young people, then why would we consider bringing all young people back in, if that is deemed to be unsafe? Why would we not offer spaces to those about whom we are concerned?  I know some of the answers. There would be uproar and a cacophony of objections, which, surely, is a clear indication that, for a lot of people, this is not the purpose at all. It is certainly not the way to get the economy going and fulfil the ambitions of those for whom that is really the primary concern.

…. And the consequence?

The absence of clarity creates the inevitability of confusion.  Confusion is always likely to create conflict and conflict always bedevils coherence in establishing policy and determining action. We are only going to get clarity if we get open discussion and we will only get decisions if these discussions include fundamental questions, which usually start with why.

Alison Cameron

Author Alison Cameron

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