On Wednesday covid changed education in the UK.
This time last week was my birthday. I was recovering from a 24 hour sickness thing, but was feeling better and my kids were at school.
This week, we have self-isolated, the schools are shutting and social distancing is the place we are at. Our generation and the ones after us have never had life change so fast.
We seem to have adapted well enough so far. At work people are switching to online communication (which makes me really miss being in the classroom with real people) and the phone. Universities are closed and teaching online, a model the Open University has made very successful for over 50 years now.
My A’ level students feel like they have had the rug pulled out from them as will so many other year 11 and 13 students around the country. I see lots of my teacher colleagues posting that they are happy to help parents with home-schooling. As teachers, we are still setting work on line and marking it.
But really. A whole nation of home schooling? I don’t think so. How many parents are really going to have the time, inclination, aptitude and mental resources to get their kids to do school work? How many kids, now their schools have shut, are going to be inclined to keep doing the work their teachers set?
And maybe they shouldn’t.
Let’s call a spade a spade – teachers as babysitters
Maybe this is time to really re-consider. Most teachers know, that part of our job, for some kids, is baby sitting so their parents can go out to work and this has never been clearer than schools remaining open for the children of key workers. We teachers also know that even though we get no training or recognition for it, we are social working, child protection therapists, again made clear by the fact that schools are staying open for the vulnerable children in our communities.
I’m not saying any of that is wrong. But let’s finally call a spade a spade. Let’s name the elephants in the room. Ofsted is cancelled, school data collection cancelled, exams cancelled. All these monoliths have been knocked down in one fell swoop. Students pushed and pushed towards exams, schools pushed and pushed towards results have now seen the very thing they were striving for knocked down and out of the way in seconds.
So what does the education landscape look like now? Schools babysit so parents can work. Schools look after some of the county’s most vulnerable students. Teachers can be trusted to do those things. What about the rest of it?
‘But the point of school isn’t exams, it is learning’, said a non-teacher friend I went to school with. Oh the idealist! For learning is, or was, so exam focused and schools so focused on getting those results that the kind of learning my friend was talking about, gets lost. Because he was talking about learning driven by desire, curiosity, questioning, engagement. And for some kids that is the case, but back to our spade, for others schools is a safe and social place they go while their parents are at work.
It is so clear in my own kids. They are not missing school work and learning. They are missing their friends.
Learning at home?
My younger son has often complained about going to school, even though he does OK there, because he says it takes time away from what he wants to do. This is the child who has taught himself the piano and coding. Neither of my children are averse to learning.
So how are we going to spend this time while we are all at home? I wrote in an earlier blog about the kind of ways we might structure our days and so far we are managing a two hour learning slot. I’ve been working from home and so the kids have been learning. What? Well one has been doing coursework and the other has coded a game and is now learning ‘Ethical hacking’ from Udemy. Another friend has been working with her kids trying to work out how to build steps in their garden. Someone else has been cooking with their children. Both of mine are reading more.
I do also know of kids who are spending the whole day gaming. Sigh. It is an imperfect situation, just as schools are.
What is learning?
I think this is a time to explore what schools are really for, how they run and what kind of learning matters.
The creative arts have been squeezed more and more in the state system, and yet I’m guessing for some children, this is how they will spend their time. Practical skills are also squeezed in the exam funnel and I wonder how many children will be helping parents repair storm damaged fences and be learning how to do the washing and cook.
When my A level students were asking me, virtually, yesterday, what they should do, I said, ‘keep on learning’. Many of them are hoping to go to university so now they have time to learn more about the thing they want to study, they can specialize, deepen their knowledge, explore and be curious. Now they have time to learn another language or an instrument. They could learn to touch type, code, design, sew. I also said ‘keep fit’. For months now they have been stooped over desks revising and learning. Now they can walk, stretch, sit in the cold sun.
What and who do we value?
I am wryly amused that the list of ‘key workers’, who now are indispensable to the functioning of our country, are all the sectors who have had funding, wages, social value and trust systematically cut. Drivers and supermarket workers on zero hours contracts with very few rights are suddenly being seen for the essential workers they are. I do hope that when this has passed, if it does, that society can re-configure in a fairer system that rewards these people for the work we are all now vividly aware of. I also notice that agricultural workers and farmers are not on this list. I’m not surprised at the oversight but I think before too long we will begin to appreciate our UK producers much more than we have before.
Monitoring, pressure, targets are suddenly no longer needed because the government no longer has time to watch. So now, guess what, people are being trusted to get on with what they know how to do. And guess what, they are doing it. Because teachers know how to teach. We have always known we were babysitters, social workers, psychologists as well as teachers.
With more people working from home, maybe we are no longer needed as babysitters for all parents, maybe there is a different way to work and learn together at home or, when we emerge from this, in hubs.
Ken Robinson for years now has been banging the drum of how schools were created along factory lines and that no longer suits our world. Yesterday I met my students online for the first time. The day before their exams were cancelled. The education world has already changed. I do hope that when the time comes for us all to come out of hibernation, we decide to reconfigure in a different way.