February 2021 edition: Education for a Changing World: Lessons from the Pandemic and the Power of Virtual Learning

Education for a Changing World: Lessons from the Pandemic and the Power of Virtual Learning

‘This school is not the million bricks, but the thousand hearts who carry more dreams than the night sky has stars.’ Anonna, Year 7, January 2021 taken from the worldwide web.

So quoted Anonna, when asked in an online English lesson to describe her experience of school during lockdown, using our VLE ‘Mulberry Learn’.

At the end of the last lockdown (March to June 2020), I wrote a paper for Mulberry’s trustees on the difficulties experienced by the students and families we serve in our Tower Hamlets community and the vital importance of technology for access to learning in a pandemic. In March 2020, the curtains had been drawn open on the difficulties of daily existence for some people. Hunger and health issues were made visible quickly. In response, we ran a foodbank and dealt with period poverty, supported by trustees, donors and friends of Mulberry. In the hierarchy of human need, we knew that addressing these issues was fundamental to the capacity to learn. So too, though, are the resources available within homes – access to technology, family support for learning and space to study being critical. Thus, government investment in FSM and devices for our families has been deeply appreciated.

The June 2020 paper discusses the considerable potential of a VLE – whether for complete online delivery during a full lockdown – or for a blend of online and onsite provision, as in last autumn when so much school attendance had to be disrupted for Covid-19 isolation. Parental engagement and academic consultation, advisory events and other essential components of school life for families can be very effectively supported through online technology - providing you have access. For the majority of our families, access to devices was a significant barrier during the first Covid-19 lockdown, as was our (then) rather old VLE infrastructure, which ultimately could not cope with our demands of it.

Professional, knowledgeable and kind staff are precious and under-recognised assets in this pandemic.

Vanessa Ogden

Our Trust’s transfer to a more technically agile platform in the middle of the first lockdown was a bold step whilst many staff were housebound and could not easily meet to support each other. It was, however, essential and it has resulted in some of the most imaginative, high quality pedagogical practice I have seen. The vertical take-off in provision of remote schooling, has been remarkable. The daily tracking of student engagement and the daily phone calls to families made – some thousands by now over the past month – and home visits. The online parent consultations and academic review days that have been undertaken. The enrichment and intervention opportunities (now moved online) that staff are gradually rebuilding. This shift is repeated in schools all over the country. The response is a testament to the creative potential and commitment to children of our educators.

Nevertheless, there are issues for us to work through – some of them exercising our professional skills considerably (how to use the chat function successfully to scaffold learning when you have a challenging class, is probably familiar territory – effective differentiation is another). Some matters for staff are also difficult – how to balance professional well-being with our responsibility to children, especially students experiencing disadvantage, is one. There are thorny problems to solve, not least screen fatigue. Yet, the resourcefulness we are seeing in the adaption to online schooling by teachers bears out the latest OECD report, launched in February 2021.

Entitled 'Positive, High Achieving Students? What Schools and Teachers Can Do', it makes abundantly clear that teachers and support staff make the difference. Using ‘big data’ and incisive analysis, Andreas Schleicher demonstrates what many of us have known: what teachers and support staff do really matters. Whilst technology has helped us take our schools into metaphysical existence – to Anonna’s point – it cannot replace the thoughtful teaching practice and pastoral care of staff in schools. Professional, knowledgeable and kind staff are precious and under-recognised assets in this pandemic. In Tower Hamlets, transmission rates have been very high yet staff have gone to work every day to fulfil their public duty – some (especially Bangladeshi staff in our Trust’s schools) paying the price in serious illness and bereavement. Valour characterises what they do. Prioritisation of school staff for vaccines in areas where Covid-19 infections have been high would be an extremely supportive measure.

Annona reminds us of the purpose of schools. The buildings having melted away, the value of teachers and support staff is re-emphasised. They are generators of the metaphysical world of education and community when people are separated from each other – the synaptic connection between us, keeping schools alive as a body of people. As we move out of the pandemic crisis and into recovery, opportunities exist to support and reframe the way we organise education. Reducing pressure, resourcing technological infrastructure and recognising the assets we have in our school staff must be part of this picture.