October 2020 edition: Reflections on COVID

Reflections on COVID

When the history of this period of education is written, one of the things that will certainly stand out is the response of our school system to an unparalleled and incredibly variable seismic set of events. The pandemic has challenged school systems around the world and continues to do so on a daily basis. What has been at the heart of this response, and what are some of the current challenges our system faces?

What has been at the heart of this response, and what are some of the current challenges our system faces?

I’ve been lucky to have had scores of conversations with trusts and heads since the start of the pandemic and hear at first- hand what is happening. RSC teams have been engaging closely with trusts and local partners. A few key things have stood out from all of this:

Resilience and stamina. Often vastly underestimated facets of school leadership, or leadership in general, not many people working in education will forget the week of the 16th March 2020 and what has happened since. Leaders have dug deep, often working through weekends and bank holidays. This has required at times extraordinary amounts of endurance and grit.

Speed of reaction. Almost overnight, patterns of provision were established and re-established for vulnerable children and children of key workers; for primary aged children; for secondary aged young people via rotas and now, since September, where we have over 99% of all schools open. This has required agility, operational flexibility and a readiness to put children first at all times.

Teamwork. Many school and trust leaders have reported how the crisis has engendered incredible examples of team spirit, both within schools and between schools in multi academy trusts. Those in MAT partnerships have obviously benefitted from being able to share practice and develop solutions to operational issues quickly.

Judgement. Plainly, the virus’s reach and expansion is unpredictable. Planning weeks and months ahead is necessary, though understandably difficult. Government will need to make decisions and create frameworks, often on new, rapid information that is imperfect. But the local decisions made by trusts and heads, trusted by parents, are those which impact immediately on the lives of communities. The judgements that schools make – framed around providing high quality education and safety – are scrutinised every day; there has been no hiding place.

The challenge for schools is ensuring those that have fallen behind, or lost some of the habits of schooling, can catch up quickly.

Dominic Herrington

If these have been some of the responses, what are some of the challenges ahead in the next few months?

Holding our nerve - it is really important that despite the pandemic, and the worry this causes, we remember the core basics of great education remain. These are the bread and butter of any education system worth its salt: the importance of literacy and numeracy for primary aged pupils; the importance of teaching and learning, supported by high quality CPD; sensible use of data; a full, engaging and high quality curriculum. And all underpinned by strong structures of leadership and governance, such as strong MATs. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is, it will have a lot of what we already know.

Managing safety within school settings – obviously, this has been at the forefront of school leaders’ minds as staggered starts, bubbles and the like become part of current everyday life. One of the things we have noticed is schools learning quickly about how to avoid widescale disruption by, for example managing staff contact. A challenge will be to ensure schools can learn from one another quickly about the best operational methods to use here, while retaining the focus on ensuring pupils are safe.

The pandemic has inevitably highlighted inequalities. Both government and schools have responded quickly here to identify particular needs in pupil groups. Education’s role as a driver of social mobility has never been more important as the economic effects of the pandemic play out. The challenge for schools is ensuring those that have fallen behind, or lost some of the habits of schooling, can catch up quickly. This is a significant challenge, and we have seen how MATs offer the opportunity for schools to bring together expertise here.

Managing interruption to learning is a new challenge. Very few schools have had to close completely since the restart in September, but a minority have had to send small bubbles home (or even year groups) on public health advice. This pattern disrupts the traditional flow of learning, timetables and flow of the school day. Plainly, this is not ideal, but getting used to it is important. Providing high quality remote learning is a critical response to this, and one where learning will need to continue to develop rapidly across the system. It is clear there are many ideas out in the sector about how this should develop. Again, the advantages of scale and being part of a MAT has been obvious here, for example through groups of schools providing platforms, resources and case studies.

Finally, retaining hope and optimism for the future. Education is an incredible enabler for all, particularly the most vulnerable children. We know that while children and young people can often surprise us with their robustness and ability to bounce back, others will require more tailored support through this period. We’re completely committed to enabling schools that wish to face these challenges as part of a MAT can do so: during the Covid period to date, over 180 schools have joined MATs, and over 100 academies have transferred to MATs.

Overall, building on the start to this term, there is now a consensus about the need for schools and educational settings to remain open as far as possible; for groups of schools working together to offer potential to face the next set of challenges during the pandemic; and for schools to continue to show they are places where new futures can be created and individual talents unlocked.