“I think teachers, kids and parents are doing a pretty amazing job, considering.”
Bristol secondary teacher Tom Bolton said that the past 18 months have been tough on pupils, educators and parents, who have had to deal with disruption, lost learning and ever-changing government guidance.
Back at the end of the last academic year in July, thousands of Bristol children were self-isolating from more than 100 schools. Schools faced significant disruption thanks to Bristol’s summer wave of infections, as schoolchildren have to self-isolate if a classmate tests positive for Covid-19.
Infection rates remain high in Bristol – much higher than this time last year. But with this new academic year, there will be fewer restrictions in schools after the scrapping of the bubble system and social distancing.
There will likely be Covid transmission in schools, but (in theory) less disruption to learning. During this difficult period for schools, many children have fallen behind after not engaging with online learning, and there is widespread consensus that these are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Cable spoke to school leaders, experts and unions about what they learnt during the difficult last academic year and what needs to happen now to begin repairing the damage so that a generation of children aren’t left behind.
At a disadvantage
Bolton, who is joint secretary of Bristol’s branch of the National Education Union (NEU), said that lockdowns have exacerbated existing inequalities, which have been steadily growing since 2010, with funding cuts to the sector. Remote learning has widened the attainment gap between wealthier and poorer students.
He’s also concerned about the impact of the past 18 months on pupils’ mental health. “There are lots of kids who are suffering from mental health problems as a result of the lockdown, they had issues with overcrowding or living in poverty.
“There’s a lot bubbling underneath the surface. The main thing schools need is support to deal with that. The government talks about catch-up, but the big concern I have is that we can’t just get back to normal and accelerate these kids to where an algorithm thinks they should be. I think there needs to be much more of a focus on meeting the kids where they’re at.”
He also has concerns about teachers leaving the profession, which was an issue before the pandemic, but could leave schools stretched next year. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard about people resigning from their jobs without a job to go to… Like with kids, I feel like we’re not yet seeing the full impact on staff.”
Catch up funding
In June, the government’s own school catch-up tsar Sir Kevan Collins resigned over the £1.4bn promised to schools over three years, which works out as £50 per pupil – much lower than in other countries. By contrast, Collins had reportedly put forward plans costing £15bn.
Dan Rodeck, one of Filton Avenue Primary School’s heads of school, told the Cable that some children in year 3 and 4 are eligible for catch-up tuition but that it was “very frustrating” that tight restrictions meant not all the kids who need extra help were eligible.
“Some are getting extra tuition and it’s having an impact,” he said. “But the restrictions have made it more difficult.” Roughly one in seven children in those years accessed extra sessions in maths and English because they had fallen behind and are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But Covid-19 hasn’t just been about missed learning, but missed development and social time.
Mark Davies, the CEO of Trust in Learning Academies, which runs five schools in Bristol, said that restarting extra-curricular activities is integral. “All schools should be concerned about everyone’s mental health and wellbeing… We’ve had to put [activities] on hold, we want to re-engage with that quickly. All these things make the relationships real.”
Patricia Broadfoot, Emeritus Professor of Education at Bristol University, who has written recently about what reforms are needed, said: “Clearly the government needs to recognise the scale of this problem of exacerbated educational inequality as a national problem that will impact in due course on the economy.”
As well as extra funding for intensive tutoring, she called on the government to establish a multi-disciplinary expert group, to advise on ways to address the complex needs of children, caused by the pandemic. “The loss of social time, of physical activity, and the growth of mental illness caused by Covid-19 need to be addressed in an integrated way.”
Despite these serious challenges ahead, there are clear successes from the last year as schools have been forced to adapt. Rodeck from Filton Avenue Primary said: “Some things have been really positive. We altered the start and end of the day, with staggered playtimes, which means more space and quality of playtime.”
He added that online ways of communicating with families, brought in during the first lockdown, will continue. As well as virtual parents’ evenings, the school has used their Class Dojo platform to communicate with parents, share content from assemblies with them, and send out school reports as PDFs rather than paper copies.
“It’s been brilliant for parents and carers in better understanding day to day life in the school”, he said.
Davies echoed this: “There is evidence to suggest that disadvantaged communities have less engagement with school than they should. So if Covid has helped to overcome that, then the onus is on the school to maintain that communication.”
Opportunity to reassess
Almost every sector has explored the idea of building back better – using the pandemic as an opportunity for radical reform.
After the A-level fiasco last year, exams are one area that needs reassessing, according to Professor Broadfoot: “The pandemic has resulted in national exams being cancelled in favour of teacher assessment. This has caused many problems but also created opportunities and challenges; the opportunity to ask whether we are assessing the skills and qualities that are most important for the future and in the most effective way.
“I strongly believe that the time has come for a far greater use of technology in qualifications. Using online systems will enable the assessment of a much wider range of skills, and in a much more appropriate way for the 21st century.”
Bolton, from the NEU, was one of the secondary teachers organising centre-assessed grades, instead of preparing pupils for traditional exams. He said schools have worked hard to make this as fair as possible, and done a good job.
“The work has just fallen on educators without any recognition…This year, schools had to write, administer and mark the exams without additional pay.”
But he thinks the exam system needs more of an overhaul. “We need to focus on a recovery curriculum that isn’t just how we can get them to pass exams. There should be a discussion around how we portion out success. It’s currently baked into the system that we write off a section of kids as failures with this competitive exam model.
“There isn’t a solution to this problem that isn’t going to involve a substantial increase in government funding.
“This disruption is going to be felt over five years, 10 years. It’s not going to be a case where we do some catch up and we reset things to how they were before. The discussion needs to be about what could we do instead of how the system was before.”