Head of the Education Group Robert Lewis led a roundtable discussion on mitigating the impact of school closures. Joined by experts from across the education and charitable sector, the discussion examined how the closure of schools and the disruption of the pandemic on children's education and wellbeing could be minimised.
A key focus of the discussion was the medium and long-term impacts of closures. We need to plan for the years ahead, not just the remaining weeks and months of lockdown.
The school environment
School is not just an environment for academic advancement but a place that is essential in the development and provision of wider enrichment activities. This is especially true for children with disabilities or those within disadvantaged communities.
For many children, school is the main way that they access activities to build their self-esteem, leadership and wider socialisation skills. This is about connection to community activities, including physical education, and the importance in building long-term relationships with peers that can last long into adult life.
Some children may not be accessing school during closure even when they are entitled to do so. Access to school during the lockdown is being provided to "vulnerable children" but few children and their families would define themselves in this way. We need to make sure we get away from dehumanising language.
- Fence off specific time to dedicate to outdoor activities.
- Put more innovation and emphasis on learning and exercising outdoors.
- Rethink language around 'vulnerable' children to be more inclusive and less stigmatising.
Teachers, parents and pupils are generally better prepared for home learning than they were in 2020. Schools are better at operating resources like Zoom, and there is now a legal requirement on schools to provide learning at home. During the course of school closures some children have had a fantastic education, benefitting from very small class sizes. While not the universal case, it was recommended that we ask what we can learn from those experiences which we can apply to all as part of the medium and long-term recovery. We know now that access to computers need to be a universal right and we know there needs to be more support for parents as they have a key role in children's learning.
- Examine those who have had a positive experience learning in the pandemic and learn from their experiences.
- Access to computers should be a universal right.
- Is there space for a mentor system made up of former teachers or volunteers that could help support children outside the regular curriculum?
Rethinking the timetable
We discussed putting schools on immediate holiday and making up the time by keeping school open for longer during the summer. While the feedback for this proposal was not positive, all acknowledged the need for creative thinking around the school year and timetable. We cannot continue to fit our response into pre-pandemic system, when the previous system had inherent existing issues, especially around social mobility. If we want to 'build back better' in education after the pandemic then we have to take the opportunity to think beyond pre-existing structures.
A wider problem identified is the lack of support from Government for children's wellbeing in general. Previous manifestos only mention children's development in terms of their use to the workforce, and fail to provide a consensus on what constitutes a 'good' childhood. There needs to be a re-think around what emphasis we place on the importance of childhood and what a good childhood should be like.
- Move away from trying to recreate the existing processes, as these will end up a 'pale imitation'.
- Reframe our thinking – instead of 'how can we reproduce the systems we have', start with the outcomes we want to achieve and then come up with the solutions.
- Place a greater emphasis in policy on the quality of childhood, rather than just educational outcomes.
This is an opportunity to consider how we can deliver an educational experience that is better. A flaw in the past 12 months has been the desire to push learning back into the pre-pandemic model, which was not working for many children.
Students at different ages and stages of their development need different levels of support during the months and years ahead. The response to the closure of schools will have to be varied and creative in order to address learning in a targeted, specific way, without adding to the burden teachers already have.
Mishcon de Reya will continue to work with key stakeholders in education to build a better education, and childhood, for post-pandemic Britain.
Disclaimer: The above is a summary of the discussion on Friday 8 January 2021 but should not be attributed to any individual participant or their affiliated organisation
- Robert Lewis – Mishcon de Reya (Chair)
- Reuben Moore – Teach First
- Rob Halkyard – Teach First
- Kate Howell – The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference
- Dan Paskins – Save the Children
- Laura McInerney – Schools Expert
- Laura Glynn – BMA Trust
- Sarah Atkinson – Social Mobility Foundation
- Janet Tobin – Mishcon de Reya
- Kamal Rahman – Mishcon de Reya
- Sophie Hollander – Mishcon de Reya