Seen, safe, supported

Homeschooling through the pandemic has helped demonstrate the importance of a physical school in a child’s development. 

The pandemic has given everyone in the education systems we report on reason to reflect. A lot of this is centred on how the system needs to change after lockdown. An example of this was reported in The Times on February 12. It was titled: For generation Covid, outdated GCSEs may no longer make the grade and a leader in the same edition extolled the potential value of a national catchup programme.  

We would argue, however, that it is not just the future we have an opportunity to reflect upon during this crisis. Without traditional schooling, the pandemic has exposed roles undertaken by schools which tend to go unseen or unappreciated. In coaching terms we could say the pandemic has made the implicit explicit.  Sir Jon Coles, Chief Executive of United Learning explains: “The current unfortunate situation we find ourselves in is challenging for us all but it does provide us a unique opportunity, by contrasting homeschooling with schooling, to reconsider the value of our school system and thus what we are trying to achieve.” 

We should state from the outset that we recognise that schools are there to assist children to pass public exams and thus, to put it crudely, sort the wheat from the chaff. They also  play the role of the largest baby sitting organisation in the world – a service relied upon by  a growing section of society to enable it to work and provide the resources required to keep the whole system going. 

But school has a vastly wider impact on the development of children and their role in society than the accumulation of academic knowledge and providing something to do during the day. The sociological aspect of a child’s schooling is one that has been brought into sharp relief over recent months with the closure of educational establishments. Now, finally, we understand the importance of school attendance. To illustrate this point further, we will provide some examples.

On their first day at school, parents or carers hand over  responsibility for their child’s safe keeping. The expectation is that the child will be seen, safe, supported, developed socially, morally, physically, metally, intellectually and finally pass public examination. These aspects of the school system are regulated to far higher degrees than those required of a child’s parents and carers. 

As part of this responsibility, we take it for granted that every child who attends our schools will be seen every day by at least one or more responsible adults. These staff will have been vetted to ensure they are safe to work with children and are appropriately trained.  

Who provides this regular critical point of contact for all children?

Who vets the adults that children meet outside of school? 

The member of staff assigned to see each child every day, often the form or class tutor will also take a personal/professional interest in each child’s development including offering advice and where necessary intervening on their behalf.  They will also, it is sad to say, increasingly know how to observe for signs of neglect and abuse both by others and the child themselves. 

When they are not there, who carries out this increasingly vital observational role?

The entire school environment is also strictly regulated. The pandemic has reaffirmed a school’s priority to ensure it provides a safe learning environment. This can often be in stark contrast to the child’s neighbourhood, potentially with gangs, knife crime and postcode territories. In these cases school is one of the few places where young people who are interested in learning can feel safe and valued. 

How do we ensure the environment is safe when schooling transfers elsewhere?

Whilst in school, the leadership establishes a set of rules. These regulate behaviours and timings. They reflect how society is evolving, for example schools have been at the forefront of the derive for equality and diversity.  Though there are sanctions for those who transgress, they rely on individuals to follow a common code – one it is hoped they will continue with in adult life. 

Who is responsible for ensuring that children learn how to live as responsible citizens when they cannot attend school? 

The pandemic has had a negative impact on the wellbeing of many children and staffand some of this will be long lasting. Dealing with this may well be beyond the capacity of the school. 

If schools do not address these issues of wellbeing, who will?

When young students are interviewed about why they miss being at school, the dominating response is that they miss their friends. Fear that the internet allows young people to develop unsafe relationships is always in the back of parents’ minds, no matter how many blocking procedures they introduce. Schools on the other hand have procedures in place to ensure that any person their students come into contact with online is certified as safe. They also take responsibility for dealing with bullying, another concern which is prevalent on the internet.  

Who regulates social media for students when they are not at school and who takes responsibility for dealing with its downside? 

A lot is made of our schools’ responsibilities to ensure that every child meets their potential regardless of where they come from. This is known colloquially as bridging the social divide.  With the gap between rich and poor continuing to widen and a host of data showing the impact of this on quality of life and life expectancy among the poor, social mobility is a burning issue for most western societies.  In England, the effectiveness of schools  in bridging this gap is measured in’ examination results and supported by specific funding. Schools unsuccessful in doing so are named and shamed.  

The multiple methods schools use to address this issue has been clearly exposed by the pandemic. For example, schools provide free lunches for disadvantaged students. Whether these should be provided and how the programme has been managed has in England resulted  in a heated debate between the Government and a group led by the England footballer Marcus Rashford over who supplies meals to disadvantaged students during lockdown and outside of this during school holidays.  

Dealing with disadvantage has not just stopped at keeping schools open and feeding students. Schools have provided them with the equipment necessary to homeschool. Sir Jon observed that from the first lockdown, the social divide in his schools, which his staff worked so hard to mitigate, was harshly exposed by homeschooling. On the one hand those students attending the trust’s private schools all had the necessary electronic equipment to access online homeschooling.  However, to ensure that all their students in their state-funded schools had the same opportunity, the school had to invest heavily in laptops and dongles.  

This eclipsed the usual manifestation of this social inequality, which can be seen by the size of a parent’s car on the school run, where they posted their holiday instagram photos from and what designer clothes they wore on non-uniform days. 

Who ensures that a growing number of the outcomes of social-disadvantage are addressed if schools do not?

Finally, the pandemic has seen school staff and school premises being used in different ways, for example in England as Covid testing sites.  These wider roles have either been required by government or have been taken on as the result of their belief in social responsibility.  The result of this has, in some cases, seen school staff playing the role of quasi social/health workers. 

Are these wider areas of activity to be part of schools’ roles in the future, and if so who provides the training and resources? 

Conclusion

Mike Dubeau, Director General of the Western Quebec School Board, sums up the outcome of these actions by our schools: “In a recent conversation with a colleague I remarked that the pandemic has done much to restore the credibility of educators and the school system in general.  Pre-pandemic it was not uncommon to hear that the bricks and mortar schools would soon become obsolete and that face to face contact between student and teacher would no longer be required for learning.  

“However, we have come to understand that being physically present in school is so much more than the acquisition of knowledge and the completion of evaluations – it is the human interactions and connections that are so important to the physical/mental health and development of our students.  I believe there has been a genuine reawakening of the appreciation of teachers, principals and all who contribute to the education of our children and young adults.”

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We would like to thank Jon and Mike for finding time in their very busy schedules to contribute to this post.  We would also like to recognise all those staff in our collaborative learning community who have gone the extra mile to limit the negative aspects of the pandemic on this generation of students.  

Take care and stay safe

George